Wednesday, 21 January 2009

New types for old

This beautiful cover image is from a booklet describing the Rotofoto process, a photomechanical composition system developed in the late 1930s by George Westover, who had worked for Monotype.* Rotofoto, Uhertype (a Hungarian–German system), and the American Intertype Fotosetter are interesting because they show hot-metal type designs being adapted for photocomposition, and setting a high standard right at the start of commercially viable photocomposition.

The Uhertype, whose types are comprehensively discussed by Christopher Burke in his book Active literature: Jan Tschichold and the New Typography, had a comprehensive programme of type design, including versions of Monotype’s Gill Sans and Deberny & Peignot’s ‘French Roman’. The Fotosetter’s first typeface seems to have been Garamond, chosen no doubt because it showed off the phototypesetter’s ability to handle kerning.

The Rotofoto, reflecting its roots within the Monotype Corporation, offered Times New Roman and Monotype Old Style series 2. It’s not clear whether these were redrawn to any degree, or simply photographed from pulls of Monotype-set metal type. The Monotype connection was necessary: the keyboard for the Rotofoto was a Monotype one, and the unit widths of Rotofoto designs would have had to match those of the parent Monotype font.

I’ll be talking more about these and other early phototypesetting machines and the types they used at the ATypI conference in St Petersburg in September.

* See Boag, Andrew, ‘Monotype and phototypesetting’, Journal of the Printing historical Society, new series, 2, p. 58

What photocomposition meant for type

Here are some images from my presentation ‘Absolutely no type’ at this year’s ATypI conference.

Books produced by early phototypesetting systems publicized the fact that they were produced with ‘absolutely no type’. What letterforms were chosen for these new systems? How did they relate to existing type designs? What opportunities were taken (or missed) in the creation of new founts? How did the new typefaces for new machines affect the designers and typesetters who used them? By looking at the earliest phototypeset books, manufacturers’ and printers’ type specimens, and printers’ archives 1950-1970 we can find out more about the time when the certainties of metal typography began to dissolve into the new world of film.

All phototypesetting devices broke the link that existed in metal type between character width and escapement, that is the horizontal space in which a character sits. The latter could now be varied independently of character width, allowing any amount of under- or over-spacing of letters. This point is seized upon in this specimen for the Bawtree machine of the 1920s.

The Intertype Fotosetter promoted the new freedom of type design. Its hot-metal faces were constrained in two ways: characters could not kern (that is the top stroke of f could not hang over the following character), and character widths for roman and italic had to be equal, to allow for duplex matrices (which carried both fonts). Garamond seems to have been the first typeface adapted for the new machine, and the revised designs show how both constraints have been thrown aside.

Economy and efficiency were always te selling points for the new machines. The weight of the pieces of film used for a job was compared with the weight of the lead type that would previously have been necessary: