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September 18, 2002

Fontological Musings from Kibo

Posted by Mike on September 18, 2002 2:18 PM

Kibo's got commentary on typefaces and why they all suck.

During my time on the school paper in college, we had a CompuGraphic EditWriter for all our typesetting needs. The EditWriter is/was a giant steel box with a white phosphor terminal and a keyboard of the sort that used to appear a lot on pre-PC machines: gummy keys, no concerns for ergonomics, and bunches of keys mapped to specific traditional typesetting functions.

It could receive text over a 300 baud internal data connection, and it stored copy on 8" floppies. It set type by exposing a roll of paper to a strobe flashed through the shape of a letter, and the typefaces were provided not by data in a file but by metal strips with the shapes of the letters punched out. The strips were attached to a drum that spun at a high speed, with the edge of the strip with the shapes hanging over the drum's side. Type size was controlled by placement of the lens through which the strobe was flashed. The drum would spin, and each time the appropriate letter rotated in front of the lens, the strobe would flash and expose the paper. It took three or four hours to typeset a twelve page paper, and a bit more time to run the rolls of exposed paper through a developer, after which they had to hang and dry.

We had a collection of a few dozen typefaces, and they had to be handled with care. They were made out of a flexible metal that was really prone to crimping. The second even a slight crease was introduced to a "font strip," it would make the letters crooked and ruin the night's run of copy.

The machine's goofy formatting algorithms occasionally hosed entire paragraphs, spacing the letters out to three times their normal spacing, which would mean you had to cut the letters up and paste them down one by one because we were sharing the CompuEdit with the school print shop and they were unwilling to let us use it during normal business hours.

I was the newspaper typesetter for a year and earned $20 a week for my efforts. Within two or three years the paper switched to regular old desktop publishing, paving the way for older hands to bitch about the sterility of the design computers seemed to introduce.