A post from Shady Characters

Shiny Characters № 3: Hand & Eye Letterpress

This is the last of three posts in a series on Shiny Characters. Start at PART 1 or view ALL POSTS in the series.

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Hand & Eye Letterpress occupies one of the arches under a Victorian railway viaduct in Pinchin Street, London, just a few blocks east of the gleaming City of London. A cobbled road runs between the viaduct and the brick-built council flats opposite. With the London skyline hidden by trees and buildings, you could just as easily be in Newcastle or Nottingham, but despite its unremarkable surroundings, Hand & Eye is that rarest of things: a working, commercial letterpress printing shop. I arrived on a mild October day last year to find Nick Gill, H&E’s resident Monotype operator, sitting outside with a cup of tea. He pointed me inside to find proprietor Phil Abel, with whom I had an appointment. I was there to learn about the press’s most unusual — and, by some measures, most important — device.

Handing me a mug of tea (in a Pantone mug, naturally. I’m afraid the colour code eludes me), Phil led the way between cases of metal and wood type, bales of paper, and presses of various vintage and type. Right at the back of the shop, looking for all the world like a prop from Doctor Who, was the object of my visit: the press’s computer-driven Monotype caster. Above the familiar ironwork of the caster, an assemblage of transparent air tubes, electronically-driven valves and an exposed circuit board hung from a chain disappearing into the suspended ceiling. Accompanied by the occasional rumble of a DLR train passing on the more modern viaduct just behind the premises, Phil talked me through the system and how it worked.

Hand & Eye's computer-driven Monotype caster, as installed by Bill Welliver. (Image: author's own, with permission of Hand & Eye.)
Hand & Eye’s computer-driven Monotype caster, as installed by Bill Welliver. (Image: author’s own, with permission of Hand & Eye.)

First, though, a quick recap of what a standard Monotype system is and what it does. These bipartite cast-iron contraptions were first designed and manufactured in the late nineteenth century; somewhat incredibly, now, as then, they represent the state of the art in hot metal typesetting.[?] Driven by compressed air and electricity (and, in some cases, noxious coal gas[?]), Monotypes and machines like them automated the tedious process of type composition* — that is, the laborious, character-by-character arrangement of words, spaces, sentences and paragraphs to form a printed page.[?] Monotype divided the composer’s work into two parts: text entry via a clacking, air-driven keyboard that spat out punched paper tape, and casting of that text with a separate, floor-standing caster unit that converted the letters, characters and spaces encoded upon the punched tape into gleaming lead type.

As Phil explained, there are a number of problems with this approach. Monotype casters are complex, finicky devices, and keyboards barely less so. And though it’s possible to correct keying mistakes by patching the paper tape emitted by the keyboard, it is time-consuming and — that word again — finicky to do so. When Hand & Eye had the opportunity to buy a Monotype caster, then, Phil opted to forgo a traditional Monotype keyboard in favour of a computer-driven system that could control the caster directly. Shackled to a mechanical keyboard, a Monotype caster is a decidedly obsolescent beast, but hooked up to a computer it becomes a speedy, flexible, hot metal typesetting device — and one without any real rivals.

Though there are a number of computer-based solutions available, Phil chose the system offered by one Bill Welliver, a dyed-in-the-wool Monotype enthusiast (a Monomaniac, perhaps?) from Pennsylvania. (I later interviewed Bill in person, and it was a fascinating conversation; for now, though, suffice it to say that Bill told me he earns no money from his Monotype installations — everything he does is charged at cost price — and he keeps up his invaluable hobby purely for enjoyment’s sake. Bill’s enthusiasm, and that of others like him, is key to maintaining the relevance of Monotype casters.)

Using Bill’s system, as Phil demonstrated, text is marked up using HTML-style tags to select <b>bold type</b>, <i>italic type</i>, <sc>small caps</sc>, and so on. Other, more esoteric features are available: the pump that supplies molten type metal can be turned off or on at will, justification settings can be adjusted on the fly, and more: all of the tricks or workarounds developed over the decades by Monotype keyboardists (and some new ones besides) are available at the press of a key.[?] Once a document has been marked up, it is possible to generate a PDF preview of it: Bill has not only worked out how to drive a caster from a computer, he has built a complete software simulation of the caster itself. This is no mean feat.

When the document is ready, it is sent to the caster via the cybernetic cluster of electronics, valves, and tubes wired up to the caster’s tape reader. Casters are themselves remarkably computer-like in operation: where a CPU processes instructions with each tick of an internal clock (albeit one that ticks billions of times per second), so a Monotype caster is driven by the revolutions of a central shaft, with 2-3 revolutions required to select, cast and eject a single character. The computer control system monitors the speed of this shaft via a magnetic sensor and uses this to moderate its blasts of air, simulating the advance of a paper tape through the reader with each revolution of the drive shaft.

Conceptually, it’s a simple system. In practice, Bill told me later, it has been anything but simple to make it work. Nick, the Monotype’s keeper at Hand & Eye, confirmed that the system is occasionally temperamental, though he makes the point that casters themselves are temperamental at the best of times. Nevertheless, this ungainly hybrid device is integral to Hand & Eye’s operations: without Bill Welliver’s computer interface, Phil told me, there would be no business case for running the caster. Nick, who I interviewed as he melted spent type over a gas burner and poured it into ingot moulds for reuse, was more forthright: “Without it, we couldn’t stay in business.”

Many thanks to Phil Abel and Nick Gill at Hand & Eye Letterpress for answering my questions and for humouring me in my ignorance of Monotype casters and keyboards. Also, I must thank Bill Welliver for meeting me at the British Library for a chat. If I ever manage to wrestle my schedule back into order, I may even get round to writing up that chat here!

Read more about my own adventure in type composition here↩︎
I interviewed Harry McIntosh, the creator of another such system, back in mid-2012.[?↩︎
Bill told me that he has a new, optical sensor in the works to replace the problematic magnetic one. ↩︎

4 comments on “Shiny Characters № 3: Hand & Eye Letterpress

  1. Comment posted by Justin Sherrill on

    Do you have a picture of the output? It would be interesting to see the page difference between output from a machine like this and another ‘normal’ publication.

  2. Comment posted by Michael Hurley on

    Strictly speaking, the Monotype Composition Caster was the culmination of automatic typesetting, not one of the earliest examples. Starting with William Church’s Composing Machine of 1822, many serious attempts at automation of typesetting were made. Examples include the Alden line of machines from the 1850s (which were still being developed as late as 1910, but were never commercially successful), The famous Paige Compositor (the failure of which cost Mark Twain a fortune even though it was a technically brilliant machine), what was probably the first commercially successful venture, the Thorne Typesetter of 1880, and, of course, Merganthaler’s Linotype (the first of which being developed around 1885). The Monotype Composition Caster was developed between 1898 and 1900, though Tolbert Lanston had started trying to develop a typesetting mechanism as early as 1887.

    The complex and often interrelated histories of these machines can be found in “The Development of Printers’ Mechanical Typesetting Methods, 1822 – 1925,” by Richard E. Huss (published in 1971), “Typographical Printing-Surfaces,The Technology and Mechanism of Their Production,” by Lucien Alphonse Legros and John Cameron Grant (published in 1916) and “History of Composing Machines,” by John S. Thompson (published in 1904) All are, of course, long out of print though the second and third are old enough to be out of copyright in the United States and available on Google Books and the Internet Archive.

    Perhaps interestingly, the author of the last was also the developer of the Thompson Type Caster, a small, non-composing sorts caster designed to be simple enough for any printer to cast their own type for the case. They were well designed little machines that produce type of very nearly foundry quality and several are still in use today by some of the few remaining type foundries (notably, Skyline Type of Prescott, Arizona).

    1. Comment posted by Keith Houston on

      Hi Michael — thanks for catching that! All very true. The Paige compositor debacle is especially entertaining, in a can’t-look-away sort of way.

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