The Printed Word, Part 1
With the advent of CD-ROMs, the Internet, and electronic publishing, you may hear people say we’re headed to a paperless society. Not likely. While researching a topic is fast and pretty easy on the Web, and the latest sports scores and news can be downloaded, there’s nothing quite like curling up with a good book. Somehow holding a palm-sized CD reader and flipping “pages” with a button just isn’t as satisfying. That said, we’d like to pay a short tribute to the printed word.

Books originally were written by hand on a variety of materials. Decorations and illustrations were sometimes added, as with the beautiful manuscripts from the middle ages. Unfortunately, most people didn’t know how to write, so it fell to a very small minority to create these valuable treasures. And doing all the work by hand took quite some time. Something had to change…

A pressing need
Printing, as we know it, began about 500 years ago with one of the greatest inventions of modern man. In the mid-1400s, Johannes Gutenberg invented the type mold to create individual alphabetic characters cast from metal. From there, and along with his associates, he developed the process for printing with movable type—the now famous Gutenberg printing press. With this device, the type for a page could be set once, then numerous identical copies printed. These same pieces of type could be used over and over again, saving an enormous amount of work.

It should be noted that Gutenberg wasn’t the first to produce printed text. Long before his time, the Chinese and Koreans printed text and pictures using carved wood blocks. They also developed a system of movable type using porcelain and metal, but due to their complex alphabetic systems, it wasn’t practical and the practice was abandoned.

Get in line
Gutenberg’s method of producing type changed little over the following four centuries. Minor modifications improved the process, but it wasn’t until 1884 that a major improvement occurred. Ottmar Merganthaler’s invention of the linecaster machine was another revolution. It is better known today by the brand name of the most popular version—the Linotype. This device set an entire line of type in a solid piece of metal called a slug. After they were used, slugs could be melted down for reuse. The New York Times gave the Linotype its first major commercial use in 1886, but Merganthaler wasn’t content to rest on his laurels. In 1890 he introduced the Simplex Linotype, an improved machine, which became a worldwide success. While various linecaster machines remained in used well into the 1960s, another revolution stood the printing industry on its ear in the 50s.

Take a picture
When Harris Intertype Corporation introduced the Harris Fotosetter in 1954, the pre-press process changed forever. Photocomposition, or phototypesetting, was a major departure from the accepted form of typesetting. No more cumbersome heavy type forms. No more danger from squirts of molten metal. With this equipment, type and graphic images were projected onto photographic film or paper. This lightweight, easy to handle material was then used to produce printing plates. As this quickly evolving technology improved, the speed of copy output increased to many times that of the Linotype machine. And better still, entire pages could be created, not just individual lines of type.

Many thought phototypesetting was the best there could be—until cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, arrived on the scene. By 1974, printing houses used this new machine to draft, alter, and print out “hard copy” images. Scitex Corporation introduced an advanced system in 1979 which produced complete page layouts in full color on a CRT with sizing, distorting, typesetting, and electronic airbrushing capabilities. Other equipment manufacturers followed, developing integrated systems that combined laser scanners to digitize copy, produce color separations, as well as handle the same chores as Scitex’s machine.

Compute this
The mid to late 1980s saw another major change in the pre-press world—personal computers. With the Apple Computer Company as the driving force, low cost desktop publishing systems took hold. Thanks to Adobe PostScript, a revolutionary electronic page description language, a whole new world opened up. This important standard could digitally describe a page of text and graphics, no matter what type of printer was used—dot matrix, laser, or ink jet.

Where are we
Computers brought the world of pre-press composition to the consumer level. Now, with a small investment in equipment and software, a customer can create his own camera-ready artwork and take it to a print shop for final production. Does this mean professionals are no longer needed for layout and typesetting? Not by a long shot. Having a computer and an entry-level desktop publishing (DTP) [A term usually used to describe the creation of printed documents using a desktop computer. These may be printed directly from the computer using a laser printer, or sent to a service bureau for higher quality output.] package does not a typesetter make. Even if you’ve mastered the software, design and typesetting still take an artistic eye and knowledge of the field. Look at a professionally designed advertisement—it should be clean and easy to read, attracting the viewer without hitting them over the head. Now look at one laid out by a novice—perhaps using a multitude of typefaces and unrelated graphics, leaving almost no “white space”[Areas on a piece which are free of type, graphics, and photos. White space is important in good design. It makes a piece more readable.] to give the eye a rest. Which would you rather read?

In Part 2, learn more about the various printing processes used over the years.

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