Late 1970s to Early 1980s typesetting

Before I started using Mac computers with fonts we used to use typesetting services to generate type for layouts. I believe the systems were called phototypesetting. I watched a few times in and around 1979-1980. There appeared to be a computer style keyboard & monitor, a device that looked like a computer and a big image setter. And, paper tapes taped to the walls. I assumed that was their version of a floppy disk.

Did those systems use fonts like we use now? Were they digital files? Who designed those fonts and what kind of equipment did they use?


  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,629
    It depends on the system. There were digital typesetting systems going back to the early seventies, not super high quality, mainly used at newspapers. I'm not sure how the fonts were distributed, but the later ones probably put the fonts on floppy disks.

    The predominant phototypesetting machines used film or glass negatives for the fonts. Some were disks (A/M), some were long strips wrapped around a drum (Compugraphic), some were rectangular (Linotype and Berthold).

    I don't know the details of how the fonts were made, but as far as I know they were made in-house at the manufacturer of the typesetting machines.

    I used both A/M and Compugraphic phototypesetters in the late seventies/early eighties. 8-inch floppy drives were an option (you could get them without drives).

    The floppies for those systems were for storing "keystrokes". That is, you could open a file before you started typing a job and all the keystrokes—command and characters—would be saved to disk so you could save a job without outputting it, re-run a job, or edit it like on a word processor.

    On the machines without drives, each line was sent to the output unit immediately when you hit "return" and was gone forever, although you could edit the line before you hit "return". This also meant that you had to make hyphenation decisions manually—the machine would indicate when you were getting close to the end of a line and highlight the part of the line that overflowed the line-length, so you could pick a spot to put the hyphen.

    I saw a Linofilm system once that had paper tapes. These were used similar to the way floppies were used to "save keystrokes" so you could re-run jobs. I think some people learned how to read the codes on them so they could cut out sections containing mistakes, for instance.
  • @J. Bridges you'd be well served to make a trip to the Museum of Printing in Haverhill, MA and you'd have every question you have answered  -
  • John SavardJohn Savard Posts: 1,073
    Some systems of that time did use digital fonts of one or another kind. Most, however, which is why the term "phototypesetting" was used, exposed photographic paper to images of letters which were on disks or rectangles - sometimes with the letters in white on black negative form, sometimes with them in positive form. There are still a lot of books around which describe the machines of the phototypesetting era.
  • Stuart Sandler: Thanks. I have a client in Haverhill, MA. Now I have a reason to visit them.
  • Thanks for the comments. I find that era fascinating. Before we started setting type on our own on Mac computers we used Andresen Typographics in Los Angeles. I recall doing a 24-page brochure for Xerox. We had a budget of $35,000 for typesetting alone. They created beautiful type.
  • James MontalbanoJames Montalbano Posts: 62
    edited October 27
    My first job in NYC was with a Phototypesetting firm. I was in the art bullpen. One of my jobs was to paint out the scratches on the glass font plates. It seems I was the only one with a steady enough hand to correct the scratches close to the actual type image. I believe the machines they were using were Editwriters.
  • Marc OxborrowMarc Oxborrow Posts: 219
    edited October 30
    You might enjoy Graphic Means, a documentary about the sea-change in design production techniques/technology from the 1950s through the '90s.

  • James PuckettJames Puckett Posts: 1,956
    Frank Romano did a book all about this, it’s called The History of the Phototypsetting Era. It’s hard to find a copy for sale but you can probably get one through an inter-library loan.
  • He's got plenty of copies for sale at the Museum of Printing but it doesn't appear they have an online store, you may have to call to buy.
  • Nick ShinnNick Shinn Posts: 2,098
    edited November 1
    The biggest difference between then and now: there were two quite distinct photo-technologies, one for display (with quite large glyph images, on a 2-inch film strip) and one for text, with much smaller glyph images.

    Display phototype was kerned by the typesetter’s eye. Although there were guide marks for a default setting, if the spec was for “tight not touching”, the kerning (if it could be thus termed) was entirely at the operator’s discretion. 

    Another difference: although nowadays art directors and graphic designers can adjust kerning in layout apps, it was difficult for us to do that back then, involving parallel cutting, with a scalpel/x-acto blade, between waxed lines of type, then between letters, peeling them up and shifting them along the parallel-cut “tracks” we’d made. I also recall extensively re-flowing text, especially for wrap-arounds of close-cut images. That might even be called “typesetting” too!
  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,629
    Spec'ing type to run around an irregular shape (photo, art, whatever)—especially when the text had to fill a certain amount of area—was a dark art. Today, the computer can do it interactively as you drag the shape object around on the page.
  • Spec'ing type to run around an irregular shape (photo, art, whatever)—especially when the text had to fill a certain amount of area—was a dark art.
    Mark. That was my favorite thing to do at the type shop.

  • Spec'ing type to run around an irregular shape (photo, art, whatever)—especially when the text had to fill a certain amount of area—was a dark art. Today, the computer can do it interactively as you drag the shape object around on the page.
    More often than not, a line or two would be off and we'd resort to creative cut-and-paste techniques. I still have a nice scar on my left forefinger as evidence.

  • Mark SimonsonMark Simonson Posts: 1,629
    I also made a spreadsheet for doing copyfitting, yet another happily forgotten task of designers before desktop publishing.
  • Very clever Mark. I had no access to such tools (back then I didn't even know what a spreadsheet was). I just measured the width of each line as it met the art, calculated how many characters would fit on that line based on published character per pica info and then on to the next line and the next. Wrote all of those specs on the manuscript and handed it to the compositor, then waited for the questions to arise!
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