Lines of Type

Lines of Type

The old type of printing-press is gone — but the lines they made us say are still very much around

You press a button on the keyboard, and a metal block of the corresponding letter automatically falls into place on the page.

No, that’s not quite accurate.

You punch a button on the keyboard, and molten lead flows into a mould for the corresponding letter, hardening into place as it cools, while you listen carefully through all the noisy bangs and clatters, alert for the tell-tale sound of a leak that could spray out onto you at any moment.

Typesetting, as you can see, was a dangerous business.

And yet, it was very useful. It made books and other writing more widespread and easily available than ever before. Reading, once restricted to the rich and powerful, soon became something that everyone could do.

Typesetting didn’t just bring words to the people. It also created new words and phrases, which are commonly used even today.


The movable type printing press involves taking letter-shaped blocks and arranging them to make a page template — which you can then stamp on paper to make a page. The first such machine didn’t catch on, because there were too many Chinese letters to choose from. Then came Johannes Gutenberg who got the same idea, but in German this time.

Until then, there were two main ways to make books: carve out a template, or copy it by hand. Both these methods were time-consuming. Carving involved months of painstaking work, chiselling out each letter from a block of wood, and in mirror-image at that. Copying, on the other hand, involved scribes sitting down and re-writing works in beautiful calligraphy, taking time to decorate the edges and add the final finishing touch.

Needless to say, one didn’t find many books floating around. In fact, the stamping technique was used for lots of things other than books, such as the Ming dynasty’s banknote: an A4ish-sized furry mulberry-fibre paper, decorated with intricate designs of black and coins and declarations and dragons.

Even books weren’t always what you’d think of as a “book”. They could be think, hardbound volumes covered with cloth, but they could also be fabric or papyrus scrolls — the type you look through by rolling and unrolling, not by moving two fingers on the touchpad.


Movable type is like a cross between carving and copying. Instead of carving out every letter every time, you carve them all out at once, in separate pieces, and then put them together as needed. Then again, instead of carefully calligraphising every letter every time, you have them already carved and ready to place.

It’s easy to see why Gutenberg’s invention (or reinvention) started something of a revolution (or evolution).

But why’s it called “movable type”? Well, ‘type’ is the term for one of those letters, the ones that are carved on wooden blocks. And “movable” is because, y’know, you can move it around.

The word ‘type’ originally meant an emblem or image, coming from the Latin word typus. It later came to mean the way letters were drawn, and it was only later that it got the more generic meaning of the way anything is anything.

Incidentally, the wooden blocks that type is carved on are called ‘sort’. That sort of ‘sort’ is different from the usual type, if you know what I mean.


To make his books look authentic, Gutenberg made his type copying how calligraphers wrote it. Of course, it wasn’t just a matter of “making” Somebody had to come up with a design; they had to decide “Okay, this is how these letters are going to look”.

Over time, different people started using different letter styles for different purposes, and thus was born the art of typography. This was also the beginning of the concept of machine-made fonts, where all copies of a letter look (more or less) the same.

The word ‘font’, incidentally, comes from the Latin fundere, meaning “to melt, cast, or pour out”.


Why is a printing press called a printing press? The term ‘printing’ originally meant “an impression or mark”, which is exactly of what printing-presses make on their pages. After printing-presses came along, the word was also used for writing letters separately, as opposed to joined together like in cursive handwriting.

Before printing, though, the letters had to be kept in order. Thus came the job of “typesetting”: arranging the type onto the plate in the correct order, to form the words that were to be printed. This was a slightly confusing job to start with, because you had to work with mirror images and upside-down letters. (Look at any ordinary rubber-stamp; you’ll know what I mean).

If you were typesetting, you’d have to be careful because a ‘b’ letter could be confused with a ‘d’, and a ‘t’ with an upside-down ‘f’. And, you’d have to mind your ‘p’s and ‘q’s.

If you want to see typesetting in action today, go to the post-office. Go there early in the morning, when they’re changing the date-stamp for the current day.

Post-offices still use metal blocks, one for each digit of the date, which has to be changed every day before letters are stamped. It’s the one place where original typesetting methods are used, albeit in reduced form, because printing presses have long moved on.

Part of the reason is that manually picking out type is a slow process. (My postmaster takes several minutes just on the date). Of course, publishing houses had ways to make it quicker, such as arranging types of each letter in boxes, racks, or cases: capital letters were kept in the upper cases, while the lower cases had the smaller letters.

But typesetting was still a slow process, and people were trying to copy ideas from a device that was somewhat more automatic: the typewriter.


A typewriter works in some ways like an automated typesetter, and in other ways like an automated hand.

The basic idea is simple: you have a set of metal type blocks, just like in a printing-press, but only one for each letter. These blocks are connected to keys on a keyboard, via a lever. When you press the key for a certain letter, the corresponding block shoots out. It bangs onto an ink-covered ribbon, leaving a letter-shaped mark on a sheet of paper just behind. Then, the whole sheet of paper moves to the left, leaving a space ready for the next letter to strike.

So you see, it’s like the whole printing process of typesetting, inking and printing, all compressed into one rapid keystroke.

Typewriting, by those who practised it, was much faster than writing. It was useful for secretaries who had to take notes fast, office workers wanting to produce neater documents, and telegraph operators who had to decode Morse Code, as it came in, on the fly. (The QWERTY layout, so common in today’s keyboards, was originally designed for them: keys were placed next to each other if they had similar American Morse Code sequences).

The question was, if it’s so convenient for so many people, why not make it convenient for typesetters as well?


It was Ottmar Mergenthaler, another German inventor who made the first Linotype machine — although it wasn’t called that at the time.

Mergenthaler’s machine worked like a typewriter except that, instead of letters appearing on paper, it was moulds for the letters appearing on a typesetting plate. Once a line was done, hot lead would be released into the moulds. Every line typed would harden into a rod of metal, which then became one line of text on a page.

Apparently, the machine got its name when New York Tribune publisher Whitelaw Reid first set eyes on it. “Ottmar, you’ve done it again!” he remarked. “A line o’ type!”

Linotype was pretty dangerous, though. All that molten metal could suddenly spray out onto the typist, and many people got injured. That’s when American inventor Tolbert Lanston made Monotype: it lets you type once, and the typing punches holes into tape. That tape can then be fed into a Linotype-like machine in a different place, which automatically retypes in hot metal like a player-piano.


When a book gets very popular, and is read by a lot of people, it tends to encourage stereotypes.

Stereotyping is the process of taking a typeset sheet, creating an impression of it in papier-mâché or plaster-of-Paris, and then pouring hot metal into the impression to make a permanent copy of the template. That way, the letters can be removed from the original plate and reused for a new book, while the publisher will still have a new, permanent copy to make reprints out of.

The word ‘stereotype’ later changed to mean “an image perpetuated without change”, followed by “preconceived and oversimplified notions of a person or group”.

Today, many authors and other people are applauded for “breaking stereotypes” — but if that happened in the past, we’d just think they were crazy.


Eventually someone invented phototypesetting, which used photographic film and a rapidly-spinning disk of type: like printing tiny photos of letters instead of people. And then, eventually, came modern digital typesetting techniques like LaTeX.

But that doesn’t mean the old ways are completely gone. Do you remember those people who carved all the movable-type letters in the first place? The ones who sat down and designed how those letters should look? Their skill, the art of typography is still very much alive today.

You can see typography in the variety of fonts and typefaces on the web: a variety from which you can browse and pick and choose to your heart’s content. Or, get overwhelmed by the choices.

It all depends on what type of person you are.


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