Hot Metal

How big business and big machines mechanized font founding 

William Caslon is one of the biggest names in typography—so big that four generations of type founders carried the name. Early in the 19th century, a few years after the final William Caslon cast the first Sans Serif type, he decided he’d done enough. He sold his foundry to a new type foundry run by two Johns, Stephenson and Blake.

Overnight, the year-old Stephenson Blake foundry became one of the largest and most prestigious foundries in England. It would survive not only the 19th century, but the 20th as well, becoming Britain’s oldest type founder. Along the way, they even managed to cast some impactful original typefaces, such as Impact. Stephenson Blake was big business, an example of how much type founding had grown in the early days of industrialization. Their deep type library ensured their success, but success doesn’t necessitate innovation. This story isn’t about anything Stephenson Blake did; this is about all the things Stephenson Blake didn’t.

In 1796, the German writer Alois Senefelder was in trouble. He’d written a new play but he couldn’t afford to print it. So he got inventive. First, he rewrote his play with grease, on slabs of stone. He then etched the rest of the surface of the stone with acid. This opened the stone up to absorbing water, which would in turn repel oil-based inks, leaving ink only where he’d written his play. A press of a page to the stone, and he’d made a print. The French gave the process the name that would stick: lithography.

Etching metal plates to make prints was nothing new—the Dutch Masters had printed images using the method two hundred years earlier. But lithography quickly became a popular way to print text, especially plays and music. Compared to letterpress printing, it was cheap. It also didn’t require skilled craftsmen. This was a problem for letterpress printers—like the monastic scribes before them, the new innovation made them look slow and cloistered. With lithography, almost anyone could reproduce almost anything. It’s a wonder, then, that lithography didn’t completely displace letterpress.

Fortunately for printers, the Gutenberg method of casting type was only the beginning. Stephenson Blake managed to not move on from it for a long time yet, but by the middle of the 19th century, the same process of mechanization that had already re-revolutionized printing was changing type casting too. In 1838 David Bruce Jr. patented a machine in New York that pumped molten metal into a mould. This so-called pivotal type caster greatly improved upon the speed of hand casting type—a pivotal invention indeed. It was also the beginning of moveable metal type’s ultimate metamorphosis into two great machines: the Linotype and the Monotype.

The Linotype Machine—or, line-o’-type—of 1886 cast an entire line of type at a time. All typesetters had to do was enter a line of letters at a keyboard. The machine would assemble matrices and cast a slug of type. The Linotype was quick and efficient, but it had its limitations: corrections were cumbersome, and it was best suited for large-scale printing. It’s appropriate, then, that it found its first home in the printing office of the New York Tribune, printing daily newspapers.

Compared to what existed before, the Linotype sounds like a work of runaway genius, even sorcery. Name notwithstanding, its inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler was not a sorcerer. But he might have been a genius, and he does deserve deep acclaim for his work. Linotypes were ingenious machines that simply responded to mechanical impulses: key presses dropped matrices from magazines into place and the operation of a clutch pumped molten metal into moulds. It was a coalescence of the innovations behind typewriters, automatic firearms, engines, and force pumps—the whole would make perfect sense to the inventors of the parts.

The Monotype machine, invented eleven years later, was arguably a generation of technology more advanced. In some ways it was a proto-computer. The typing segment of the Monotype was detached from the casting segment; they communicated via hole-punched strips of paper. This held a key advantage over the Linotype: multiple typesetters could set lines of type at the same time, then feed them into the caster. This was crucial for productivity; the Monotype machine could cast over 140 sorts a minute. In comparison, the Bruce pivotal type caster—itself a dramatic improvement over earlier methods—required multiple minutes to cast one sort.

The two systems handled justification differently too, with the the Monotype, again, demonstrating the more advanced system. Using the Linotype, typesetters justified text with key presses that, like usual, dropped matrices into the mould. In this case, though, the matrices were simply blank spaces of various sizes. The Monotype, on the other hand, simply “told” the machine when the line was complete and that it should be justified. The machine then mathematically justified the text by introducing wedges into the mould, expanding the size of each sort as needed.

Both machines afforded a massive increase in printing capacity. Printing boomed—with a Monotype or Linotype, each printer could also be its own type founder. As much as the labour-saving machines eliminated work, the increased demand and output of printed work kept founders at work. And, of course, while either hot metal machine could produce sorts, they could only do so with the matrices loaded into them. They could not create a new typeface.

Mechanization was also changing that front. Two years before the introduction of Linotype, Milwaukee punchcutter Linn Boyd Benton connected a pantograph to a cutting machine. This allowed him to trace drawn letters while the machine cut punches to match. Even better, adjusting the pantograph allowed him to scale the punch up or down. Punchcutting had become easier, faster, and less skill intensive.

These inventions advanced the process of division of labour that started with Fournier. Cutters and founders fell away as important parts of the type-founding process. Designers, more than ever before, had the only say in how a font looked. The idiosyncrasies and unpredictability of the human hand gave way to the precision of machines. More words than ever before spilled across pages. 

Not everyone was happy with this. The ugly side effects of the Industrial Revolution had churned up radical new ideas about the relationship between workers and the produce of their labour. At the same time, it had brought back some striking old ideas about how things ought to be made. Letters, still things, were in for another retrospective revolution.