The origins of letter-spaced justification

Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,863
edited January 23 in History of Typography

The Monotype Recorder
, January-February 1932.

I’ve mentioned this item before, but don’t recall posting the text, which I recently came across while rummaging through the Shinnstitute library, so here ’tis.

Quark XPress changed the game digitally, by presenting “H&J” options, with the default being justification by letter-space.
But I wonder if any other typesetting systems had done that previously?

In 1932, it was considered a self-evident mistake: “It early became obvious that the enlargement of type bodies should be confined to spaces only.” However, looking at the comparison here (especially for the narrow column), that might not be so obvious today, 30+ years into the digital paradigm.
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  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 966
    In 1932, it was considered a self-evident mistake: “It early became obvious that the enlargement of type bodies should be confined to spaces only.” However, looking at the comparison here (especially for the narrow column), that might not be so obvious today, 30+ years into the digital paradigm.

    Perhaps, given that the quality of typography has deteriorated so much, given that so much of it is done by amateurs.
    But then, one could imagine digital technology making it possible to justify by letterspacing in a less obvious fashion. If the line needs up to 1% extra space, letterspace. If it needs up to 3% extra space, stretch the letters. Otherwise, put the extra space in the spaces only.
    The theory behind doing it that way, I suppose, is that if you stretch everything equally without being noticed, then your justification is "perfect". (Maybe stretch the letters, don't letterspace, and don't stretch the spaces, if you can get away with it, then all the spaces are exactly the same size for "real" perfection!)

    My reaction to your earlier paragraph was: Quark XPress did what??!! If they had sufficient contact with real typography to know about the abbreviation "H&J", how could they have made such a mistake? However, my reaction may be too harsh.
    I had thought that Monotype only tried doing it the 'wrong' way because it would have made the mechanism much simpler. But perhaps it is possible to think that scattering the space more evenly would look better - as indeed it might, within strict limits, as I speculated on above.
    And given that, it is indeed possible that somebody, in the early wild and wooly days of phototypesetting, might have made a phototypesetting machine that justified by letterspacing. So your question is a worthwhile one to answer.
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,257
    Wasn't it much simpler for hot-metal technologies to confine expansion to letter spaces? If so, maybe Monotype is seeing what they want to see here! Or maybe 1930s eyes were simply too accustomed to letterpress spacing to accept alternatives. 
    If tech is steering the judgment as I'm suggesting, a more focused version of your question would be how was justification handled in the optical type era? There, like with digital type, letterspacing could be accomplished relatively easily I would think (though I know little about it). 
  • Here is a rather comprehensive article about word and letter spacing in metal type: https://www.typeseeds.com/articles/spaces.html#:~:text=“Spaces” also includes brass and,so on) to an em.
  • Quark XPress changed the game digitally, by presenting “H&J” options, with the default being justification by letter-space.
    But I wonder if any other typesetting systems had done that previously?
    My memory is getting fuzzy, but didn't PageMaker have this feature before Quark XPress?

    In the early '80s, before desktop publishing, I worked at a newspaper with an Atex newspaper composition system. I remember entering cryptic commands into the Atex terminals for H&J. I don't remember for sure, but I believe letter-by-letter justification was the default — at least for the newspaper where I worked.

  • TeX was certainly doing that in 1978...
  • The Linotronic and Diatronic typesetting machines from Linotype and Berthold, respectively, had hyphenation and justification programs. Many other computer-driven phototypesetting machines must have had this as well.
  • Craig EliasonCraig Eliason Posts: 1,257
    The Linotronic and Diatronic typesetting machines from Linotype and Berthold, respectively, had hyphenation and justification programs. Many other computer-driven phototypesetting machines must have had this as well.
    Do you know what justification "strategy" they used with regard to inter-glyph space and inter-word space?
  • Chris LozosChris Lozos Posts: 1,402
    The skill of the operator was a strong force in result.
  • The Linotronic and Diatronic typesetting machines from Linotype and Berthold, respectively, had hyphenation and justification programs. Many other computer-driven phototypesetting machines must have had this as well.
    Do you know what justification "strategy" they used with regard to inter-glyph space and inter-word space?
    I hope they only manipulated inter-word space, but I don’t know. With luck, someone will chime in on all this. I suspect that they at least offered “tracking” (positive and negative), but that is a user-made manipulation that I guess was on top of everything else?
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 1,863
    edited January 24
    I will have a look in Frank Romano’s The History of Phototypesetting—there may be something in there, although not immediately apparent from the index.

    What I find fascinating is the perception, in 1932, that the novelty of stretching type to fill a line by means of letter-spacing was considered more objectionable than the status quo of “space spacing” with its resultant big gaps and rivers in the middle of text blocks, which this comparison, extracted from the above whole-page scan, demonstrates:


    Another factor to consider is how copious kerning (and this began in the phototype era) has shifted the aesthetic towards smoothness of text; previously inter-character spacing was more irregular, which harmonized with the irregularity of word spacing. This change has affected the way side bearings are handled, too.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 966
    What I find fascinating is the perception, in 1932, that the novelty of stretching type to fill a line by means of letter-spacing was considered more objectionable than the status quo of “space spacing” with its resultant big gaps and rivers in the middle of text blocks, which this comparison, extracted from the above whole-page scan, demonstrates:

    You raise a good point. One possible reason is that letter-spacing justification was a novelty, so that what people were used to looked better automatically.
    However, in the example you included, while it could be argued that the letter-spaced version was the one that looked better most of the time...
    look at the second line from the bottom (served, unless they are very).
    Here, the spacing between the letters is so wide that reading the line is slowed, because extra effort is required to find the spaces between the words. So the conclusion - which I think a reasonable one - may have been reached that it's better to have the odd river than to allow that situation to ever arise.
  • The line containing “difficulty” happens to not differ much between each version, but if it were as airy as one of the lower lines, that ffi ligature would have to be split apart.
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 966
    The line containing “difficulty” happens to not differ much between each version, but if it were as airy as one of the lower lines, that ffi ligature would have to be split apart.

    And that would not have been able to happen on a Monotype caster.
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