Photocomposition Systems

(Phototypesetting, Photolettering)

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Phototypesetting systems were capable of setting the photographic equivalent of body type, ideally with due regard for the issues which characterize type: lining and fitting. Photolettering systems were simpler, and just lined up photographic lettering for headlines and similar short composition where everything could be tweaked by hand. "Photocomposition" includes both (plus allied mehods of paste-up). It was just as common, though, to used "phototypesetting" to mean both.

1. Some Photocomposition Systems

Note: Several phototypesetting systems were (or could be) driven by Teletypesetter-compatible 6-level tape. For more on the TTS (which by its nature was a composite technology the material for which is scattered throughout this site), see the CircuitousRoot cross-reference of TTS Literature Locations.

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APS (Alphanumeric Corp., Autologic)

The Alphanumeric Phototypesetting System ("APS"). There was no "APS-1". The APS-2 was controlled by a PDP-8 minicomputer. The APS-3 was produced under contract to IBM and became the IBM 2680 Art Printer (aka CRT Printer), a peripheral for the IBM System/360 line of computers (Models 30 or 50). The APS-4 was developed by Autologic and "became the Photon 7000 ... driven by a Datamate 70 minicomputer." The Autologic APS-5 was driven by an Autologic-73 computer.

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[NOT DONE] Phototypesetting equipment. In 1977, Compugraphic boasted that they had a type library of "more than 650 different typefaces" for photocomposition. [TO DO: scan 1977 Compugraphic portfolio of text typefaces, which has lapsed into the public domain.]

(Linotype operators may recall that Compugraphic also produced the Justape, a standalone tape-preprocessing computer for Teletypesetter-compatible linecasting tape control.)

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Fairchild Graphics Equipment purchased the Teletypesetter line of business in the very late 1950s. Later, they introduced the tape-controlled Fairchild PhotoTextSetter.

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Specimen from Melvin & Halton, Advertising Typographers. [TO DO: Add Filmotype Corp. specimens]

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[NOT DONE] It's entirely an accident that I have anything at all on FOTOTYPE. I was given some FOTOTYPE-ette booklets and a FOTOTYPE stick. I gave these, in turn, to a friend who who has a much deeper interest in the phototypesetting era. [First, though, I photographed and scanned them. Here are some of these photographs and scans.] [Also, see 1950 Inland Printer use of Varityper, "phototype," and Graphotype to produce Chicago newspapers in emergency conditions (reprinted here in Graphotype Notebooks).] [Also, see ad, Graphic Arts Monthly Vol. 25, No. 9 (Sept., 1953): 124.] [FOTOTYPE Catalog 56 (1956) speaks of their 21 years in the type field; this dates the company, if not the process, to 1935. This is confirmed by the undated catalog FOTOTYPE: Do-It-Yourself, Pre-Printed Type for Reproduction Use, which says "Doing a Big Job Since 1935"]

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The Intertype Fotosetter

This is a fascinating example of a transitional technology: the composing apparatus of a standard Intertype with the casting apparatus replaced by a photographic unit. The matrices were standard Intertype matrices in form, with a photographic image of the type inset into them.

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Mergenthaler Linofilm

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Mergenthaler Linotron

1964. [NOT DONE] [and also LGCP / LexiGraph / Lexical-Graphical Composer Printer System developed jointly with CBS under Air Force contract; see Linotype News 1965/1. pp. 6-7. not sure if it went into production.]

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Mergenthaler V.I.P.


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Monotype Monophoto

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Photo Typositor

Visual Graphics Corp. Through their re-issue of 19th century display types from the collection of T. J. Lyons, they became an important part of the 20th century revival of "antique" (19th century display) types.

Specimen from Melvin & Halton, Advertising Typographers.

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ProType Division of Electrographic Corporation.

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StripPrinter Photo Composing Machine. Catalog included several pages of "antique and old fashioned" faces; these are of unknown provenance, but are generally "the usual suspects" among the faces revived by others. [TO DO: add specimen]

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Varityper Phototypesetting Equipment

Varityper Headliner. Varityper Comp/Set 500 Direct Entry Phototypesetter.

The Varityper as more commonly known was a proportionally spacing typewriter (q.v.), but various models of phototypesetting equipment, primarily for display and headline use, were produced under this name. By 1961, Varityper was a subsidiary of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corp., better known for the Addressograph/Graphotype mailing list management equipment and the Multigraph / Multilith preses (but which also acquired Bruning (diazo printing and microfiche)).

2. On Photocomposition as a Lost Technology

The miscellaneous collection of material here is incomplete primarily because photocomposition is not my main interest (my focus instead is on metal type, and especially the "hot metal" era of composition ). Someone really should try to preserve photocomposition technology, although it is probably too late already. It is likely to become one of the least known eras of the history of type.

As a technology, phototypesetting took longer to arrive than one might have thought. My guess as to why is that it was harder to do layout and, especially, editing. Metal type survived longer than it might have because it was easy to change. It wasn't until the advent of digital systems driving phototypesetting machines that phototypesetting became easy to edit - and of course it was digital that killed both phototypesetting and metal type.

As a historical technology, phototypesetting is apt to disappear for several reasons. First, it is not really maintainable. It depends on other technologies which themselves require large capital investments but which are disappearing (film, and its chemistry). It also coexisted with early electronic technology, and electronics are notoriously difficult to maintain over even short periods of time. By way of contrast, hot metal machinery can be maintained by machine shop technologies which have been established since about 1800 and which continue today as the basis for technical culture.

Moreover, there is nothing that can be achieved with phototypesetting that cannot be achieved with digital typesetting. (This is not true of metal type and letterpress printing.)

More importantly, though, phototypesetting only existed for a single generation (vs. the nine decades of hot metal from 1890 to 1980), and didn't, it seems to me, capture the heart of that generation the way that hot metal became a way of life.

None of this means that phototypesetting was unimportant, of course - just that it will be lost.

In any event, these Notebooks collect some fragments.

3. On Phototypesetting as a Linking Technology

There are several reasons why photocomposition (and especially phototypesetting) are interesting technologies beyond their own details.

To a metal type enthusiast such as myself it is interesting because it was woven into the last years of commercial metal type. Advertising typography shops, in particular, would often work simultaneously in hot metal type, handset metal type, phototypeset type, photolettering, and wood type. The position of phototypesetting also led to some interesting transitional technologies, some of which may now seem quaint, but others of which were important for the (metal) typefounding industry.

On the (apparently) quaint side, there is the Intertype Fotosetter, a machine which might be the textbook example of a transitional technology.

On the industrially significant side, the ability to make easy changes to metal type and the existence in metal type of faces not available in phototypeset type led to interesting combinations. These were typically uses of previous relief type technologies to "feed into" the same photographic platemaking technologies for offset printing that phototypesetting also fed into.

The Ludlow "Brighttype" system, for example, used hot metal type for composition but then did not print it but instead photographed it, producing as output a photographic image for offset printing just as phototypesetting would. Similarly, both typefoundries and advertising typographers would furnish "Reproduction Proofs" of metal (or wood) type set and printed, carefully, just once. The Reproduction Proof, then, would be photographed and used in the same "workflow" (a more modern term) as phototypesetting. (As an aside, the need for "super precision" proof presses for Reproduction Proofs led to the Vandercook SP series, and these in turn have been repurposed as production presses by the now much smaller art letterpress printing community.)

Phototypesetting played a curiously anachronistic role in the later part of the revival of 19th century ornamented typefaces in the 20th century, through the reproduction and re-issuing of material from private collectors such as T. J. Lyons.

Phototypesetting was also a step in the evolution of automated typesetting. Depending on one's preference, this either began around 1900 with the commercial introduction of the Monotype or around 1928 with the Teletypesetter. Through the 1970s, tape control of type led to three things:

This evolutionary development of automated / computer-aided phototypesetting has never even been identified as a part of the history of technology, much less properly documented. It all disappeared overnight with the introduction of cheap computer-aided lettering (Postscript, the Macintosh) in the 1980s.

Finally, phototypesetting was the final phase of the evolution of type. It was a technology created by people who actually understood type, for users who were simultaneously using other type technologies and who demanded real type regardless of the technology (metal or wood or film). The best of these systems produced true analogues of metal or wood type in photographic technologies. As I argue elsewhere, digital type as a true analogue of metal or wood type is in theory quite possible, but in practice does not exist. Because the developers of Postscript did not understand what type was, and were selling to newly minted "designers" who lacked training as printers and didn't know either, we have no digital type today.