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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

March 2015



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TGR, Gutenberg, Rubric

Hot Lead, Cold Type, and Little Digital Bits: Part II

Aside from adding power to the typesetting process and the printing press, very little changed about printing for 500 years after Gutenberg started the process. He could have walked into almost any print shop in the world in 1950, set type, and pulled a galley proof much the same way he did in 1450. In the late 1800s, two automated typesetting machines that cast the type bits in the same order that they were used in the text came into prevalent use, the Monotype machine and the Linotype machine. Interestingly, Gutenberg had already used the basic method (though not the mechanics) of the Linotype by setting the Catholicon in two-line slugs all the way back in 1460!

But in the mid-1900s, two developments changed the way printing was done as rapidly as the invention of the press—Offset Lithography and Photo Typesetting. Lithography had been around for quite a while and was a printing method based on the principle that oil and water don’t mix. Instead of resting on top of the bits of lead, the ink was held on a flat surface, collecting in the areas that were not moist. The ink was then transferred to the paper in a similar fashion to any printing press. But the offset process came about with the discovery that the ink could be transferred to a roller from the litho stone and then rolled onto the paper. This process was faster and cleaner than letterpress.

The development of photography had advanced significantly by the 1950s, and it was discovered that the photographic process could be used to create the lithographic plates. That meant that type could be set rapidly by simply photographing a page, or exposing the plate to a film negative of the type. By the mid-1960s, a revolution as fast as Gutenberg’s, the majority of printing was being done by offset lithography and cold type. The day’s of hot lead came to an abrupt end and by the mid-1980s it was almost impossible to find a letterpress in production use. Typesetters trained on the Linotype and Monotype machines were supplanted and a new era of printing was begun.

The Gutenberg Rubric gives a glimpse inside the movement to preserve the art of the letterpress in the face of offset lithography and cold type. Old-time printer Frank Drucker participates in a competition to reproduce a famous work of the incunabula, using only the tools and technology available in 1460. There are still organizations, like the Seattle Center for Book Arts, that preserve and teach the “black art” of the letterpress. A portion of the proceeds from sales of The Gutenberg Rubric is donated to SCBA to help fund the teaching of these arts.

(The Gutenberg Rubric, a novel by Nathan Everett, will be released on July 28. Order your copy today!)