Design and Publishing Notebook

Learning to Typeset and Layout Books in the 1970s

19 Oct 2012

My first direct exposure to the world of design and publishing was being handed the task of typesetting and laying out a 300-page book. I had no prior experience of typesetting and laying out a book.

This was in the late 1970s. The small publishing house where I worked had a Compugraphic direct entry typesetting machine. “Direct entry” meant the machine had no permanent memory. It was rather like an electronic version of a hot metal Linotype machine. It had just enough memory to buffer a single line of text, make the decision about where to break the line, and then transfer that line of text to photographic paper, which it did by flashing a light behind a strip of film mounted onto a rotating wheel. On this film were images of every character in the currently selected font — and each film strip contained just two fonts — for example a roman and bold style in one size only. Pretty restrictive! The light flashed as the required character passed in front of a lens, thus projecting for a split second an image of the character onto a roll of photographic paper loaded into the typesetting machine.

Every so often we would remove the canister of photographic paper, take it into a darkroom, and feed it into a processing machine. Out would come a “galley”, a long paper roll of type ready to be sliced up and pasted onto a layout sheet.

It was a slow process.

The typesetting machine had no undo. No way to go back and correct a line other than the one you were currently typing. When mistakes were discovered through later proof-reading, one had to re-typeset that particular word, line, or paragraph and “wax” it over the top of the original galley. This required use of a drawing board with a “parallel ruler” and great precision of eye and hand. Patches made in this way were often visible in the printed book either because they were slightly crooked or the photographic paper was behaving differently for the patch and hence the colour of the type was different — it could vary from mid grey to black!

The galleys from the typesetter would be sliced up into page-length pieces and waxed onto “layout sheets” — large sheets of paper which accommodated eight pages arranged head-to-head. For our first book, grid lines on these layout sheets were measured up and ruled by hand using a light blue “non-repro” pencil. The pages had to be arranged such that when the multi-page sheets were printed, folded and trimmed, the pages would end up in the correct order. This is the arcane process of “imposition”, nowadays done in software, but in those days done by hand.

This whole process was slow and tedious. But I learned a great deal about typesetting and printing of books — knowledge which I could apply a few years later when “desktop publishing” arrived.

For the past few months I’ve been working on another book project (having done dozens in the intervening years), something that I’ll write about in a subsequent post.

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