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Dead medium: Typesetters: a Dead Class of Media Workers
From: (Bruce Sterling)


(((bruces remarks: the Graphion company still designs and sells fonts, but metal fonts, and the devices that used them, are gone. Even phototypesetting has been quietly annihilated. Typesetters were once as common on the techno-landscape as telegraph operators, and had a similar propensity to ride the rails, picking up a job wherever the impulse struck them. They were a powerful and well- paid trade, rather like programmers today. But every media revolution has its casualties.)))

"Typesetting as a skilled trade originated in the Renaissance. The Typesetter was solely responsible for the appearance of every page. The wonderful vagaries of hyphenation, particularly in the English language, were entirely in the Typesetter's control (for example, the word 'present' as a noun hyphenates differently than the same word as a verb).

"Every special feature: dropped capitals, hyphenation, accented characters, mathematical formulas and equations, rules, tables, indents, footnotes, running heads, ligatures, etc. depended on the skill and esthetic judgment of the Typesetter.

"Such was the attention to detail and pride in the appearance of a well composed page that Typesetters would occasionally rewrite bits of text to improve the appearance of the page. This greatly annoyed Mark Twain (who began his own career as a Typesetter) and encouraged him to invest heavily in an early, and unsuccessful, attempt to produce a keyboard-driven typesetting machine that wouldn't edit his words.

"There was a romantic tradition, in this country at least, of the drifter Typesetters, who were good enough at the craft to find work wherever they traveled. They'd work in one town until they wanted a change and then drift on. They had a reputation for being well read, occasionally hard drinking, strong union men who enjoyed an independence particularly rare in the 19th century.

"Typesetting was a skilled and respected trade even after the keyboard-driven typesetting machines were introduced, around 1900. These machines typically produced lead strips for each line of type, which were stacked in a frame, proofed (the type was of course backward), and clamped into columns or pages. Extra space between lines was supplied with thin strips of lead, inserted between lines.

"Pages such as price lists and directories would be kept in 'standing type' and edited by adding and removing individual lines of type. Large type in headings, etc., was likely to be set by hand and combined with the machine set lines.

"The I.T.U.

"The International Typographical Union, was described as 'the oldest union in America, and organized to prevent the use of labor saving improvements.' The union fought hard for its members and when times were hard would send money and train fare to unemployed Typesetters, and direct them to places where prospects were better.

"When preset advertising copy began to be provided by advertisers, in the late nineteenth century, the union required that this type could be used as received only if a union Typesetter was employed to reset, print, proof, and throw away the same copy. The union leader who negotiated this requirement is reported to have been a Mr. Bogus, and this redundant make-work typesetting was called 'bogus' type and added a word to the language. (There are other explanations for the word, but none that we know of contradicts this one).

"Even as late as the 1980s, most type was set on lead casting machines, and the production manager at the San Jose News complained that his reporters' stories were being retyped by '400-dollar a month secretaries who type 80 words a minute and don't make mistakes, and then retyped at 40 words a minute on Linotype machines by 800- dollar a month Typesetters who do make mistakes.'

"In the 1970s when the machines that set type began to use low cost mini, and later microcomputers that automated the old typesetting skills, the need for the ITU members began to decline. One after another, newspapers that were already losing advertising dollars to the new upstart television were hit by ITU strikes called to prevent the loss of jobs for Typesetters. One by one these papers closed their doors forever, and Typesetters were really put out of work.

"Finally the union had to settle for agreements that said basically, 'you can't fire our people, but you can give them any kind of honest work you have available.' Since these Typesetters had an average age of over 50 years, the papers could use them for anything from driving trucks to managing the paper warehouse, and they'd all be gone, replaced by people with lower wages (if inflation didn't make the wages equal) within 10 or 15 years.

"A sad 49 year old Typesetter told me in 1978, 'My Daddy always told me 'get a trade', so I did my apprenticeship and became a Typesetter! Now I'm unemployable!'

"The ITU no longer exists as an independent union. It had a long proud history,protecting and getting good wages for its members through some very hard times for trade workers. We'd be well advised to realize that most of the jobs we do so well now will probably go away or change completely in a single life time, and when you reach the age of the Typesetter quoted above, you probably won't have a union working to protect your right to work. So stay up to date!

"Lewis Mumford tells us that the guild of scribes and copyists delayed the introduction of printing presses into Paris for as much as twenty years. In this century people and machines become obsolete almost overnight. Absit omen."

Bruce Sterling (