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It is a cliché to say so, but the prim façade of suburbia hides some remarkable secrets. A month or two back I was researching the hyphenation practices of the closing years of the Victorian era, a period when printing was in the midst of a change from manual to automated composition courtesy of new-fangled machines such as the “Monotype” and “Linotype” systems. In doing so I came across the website of the Chepman & Myllar Press of Edinburgh,[?] which claimed ownership of the last working Monotype caster in Scotland. I had never seen a Linotype or Monotype system in person before and I couldn’t resist emailing Harry McIntosh, the proprietor, on the off chance that I might be able to inveigle my way into a visit. He agreed, much to my surprise, and so it was a few weeks later that I made my way out to Edinburgh’s leafy western suburbs to meet Mr McIntosh at his home.
First, though, a little background. Printing changed little during the first four centuries after Gutenberg published his 42-line Bible in the mid-1450s.[?] Each page was composed by hand, with a compositor plucking ‘sorts’ — the lead-alloy blocks on which individual letters and characters were embossed — from his typecase and placing them upside down and right to left on a ‘composing stick’. Completed lines were transferred to a ‘forme’ for printing, and once a given page had been printed, the sorts were distributed back to their places in the typecase ready for reuse.[?] It was a laborious process, and one that proven stubbornly difficult to automate — at least, that is, until the final years of the 19th century.
In 1886, a German-American inventor named Ottmar Mergenthaler unveiled a quintessentially steampunk contraption — the so-called “Linotype” machine[?] — that changed the face of printing overnight. With the arrival of Tolbert Lanston’s competing “Monotype” the following year,[?] these two machines would go on to dominate the industry for the best part of a century. Mergenthaler and Lanston each solved the problems of composition and distribution in very different ways, and while I won’t discuss the Linotype here (for that, take a look at Wikipedia’s excellent entry on the subject,[?] or alternatively, you can wait for the Shady Characters book to arrive!), the workings of the Monotype system are very much apposite to this story. Tolbert’s system comprised a keyboard that punched holes in a spool of paper tape to encode the characters to be printed, and a separate casting machine which decoded that tape and cast the appropriate letters, symbols and spaces on demand.[?]
Newspapers preferred the all-out speed of the Linotype, which cast a “line o’ type” at a time, while the Monotype’s métier lay in the fine print world of book production, and between them they carved up the printing industry in short order. Though both were eventually overtaken by optical and then digital typesetting in their turn, they hold special places in the history and lore of the business.* This, then, is where Harry McIntosh comes in.
A printer and typographer for over 50 years, Mr McIntosh started out as a Monotype keyboardist. Until recently his Speedspools business operated right in the centre of Edinburgh;[?] having closed it down, retirement evidently did not sit well with Harry, and he moved the firm’s Monotype equipment to his garage to set up a new press that he named after Scotland’s first printers, Walter Chepman and Andrew Myllar.[?] This was no mean feat; a solo Monotype operator must be not only a typist and printer, but also a plumber, electrician and mechanic: Monotype casters and keyboards are motivated by compressed air, while casters also require electrical power to melt the type metal and water for cooling the moulds.[?] (Monotype operators can at least be thankful that there is no gas involved; early casters burned noxious “coal” or “town” gas to heat the lead-based type metal, bringing a whole new set of hazards to the enterprise.[?])
And so, after exchanging a few emails, I found myself at the home of the man who owns and operates the only functional Monotype caster in the country. After chatting for a while about hyphenation and justification (my knowledge of which was woefully inadequate) Harry showed me around the press itself. His office was an organised chaos of computers and printing paraphernalia of varying vintage, and as we sat down at a modern PC he explained to me how the Chepman & Myllar Press differed from a traditional Monotype shop. The text is set, he said, not by a Monotype keyboard but by computer.[?]
I’m ashamed to say that it took me some time to grasp this. When I finally did so, I was intrigued; when Mr McIntosh demonstrated it to me, I was flabbergasted.
Harry had been typesetting a poem for one of his clients, and using it as an example he ran through the steps by which he prepared works for subsequent casting. Having laid out a text in Adobe InDesign, using a custom font designed to match one of the press’s many Monotype typefaces,[?] he ran it through a series of custom-written programs to produce an output file. Bringing the file with him on a 3½″ disk down to the garage, Mr McIntosh fired up one of the three Monotype casters he had kept from Speedspools’ old workshop. To say he “fired it up” is not to exaggerate matters; the flicking of switches and the throwing of levers brought the caster to hissing, clicking life.
Sitting atop this venerable device of machined steel and cast iron was a small, painted grey cabinet of the sort that might normally house a domestic electricity meter or junction box, and which was connected by cable to a PC sitting on an adjacent table. Harry copied the file onto the PC and struck a few keys, and the caster burst into motion. The caster proceeded to essentially print the poem in hot metal: each line of text was built up character by gleaming character, with a cacophonous beat of whirring, clanking and ticking noises accompanying the emission of each newly-moulded sort. As soon as a line was completed the caster pushed it onto the printing tray, or ‘galley’,[?] and so the next line emerged in turn.
On a normal caster, each non-whitespace character is produced by the passage of the keyboard’s paper tape through a reader comprised of air-driven pins, which in turn selects the appropriate position for a two-dimensional ‘matrix’ of character moulds. Once the correct mould is in position, a wedge is used to select the desired width of the sort and molten type metal is forced into the resulting cavity.[?] The mechanical complexity of all this is rather fearsome, and to see it in action is absolutely incredible: a caster running at full bore produces almost three characters every second.[?]
The key to Harry’s method of computer-driven casting was the incongrously modern grey box mounted on the tape reader. This adapter, built to Mr McIntosh’s specifications and controlled by specially-prepared files on the attached computer, uses a set of solenoids to directly actuate the tape reader’s pins.† As I watched the newly-cast type march across the galley tray I was put in mind of the current gold-rush toward 3D printing. Through an ingenious mix of new tech and old know-how, to all intents and purposes Harry McIntosh has been printing in 3D since 1996,[?] and it was a rare pleasure to witness it all at work.
Mr McIntosh picked up a still-warm sort and examined it. “Look,” he said, “this should have a quote mark on it, but it’s missing. I’ll have to run through this one again.” And with that, he dropped the blank sort to its doom in the pot of molten type metal and turned the caster off.
I should take this opportunity to thank Harry McIntosh for entertaining me, a complete stranger, and showing me around the Chepman & Myllar Press. I had a great time, and I left far more knowledgeable that when I arrived. Thanks!