From Johannes Gutenberg’s mid-1400s invention of individually cast metal letters — characters that could be mass-produced and rearranged to print identical copies of pages of words — through the early 1800s, type was designed and produced in the same way. Master printers and, later, type designers transferred drawings for each size and style of a character in a typeface onto hard metal and carved them by hand.
Each character was a separate work of individual artistry and craft. Remarkably, this system was just efficient enough to work, because each carved piece of type could be identically multiplied through intermediate processes millions of times. But it didn’t scale when many different pieces of type were needed.
Every other element of printing that Gutenberg invented or perfected advanced. Because paper was needed in massively increased quantities, its production became more streamlined, culminating in 1799 with the invention of the Fourdrinier machine. That device allowed the creation of a continuous roll of paper, which was later cut to sheets, instead of the much slower sheet-at-a-time methods.
Ink became more sophisticated and varied, allowing for rapid drying, finer detail, and remarkable ranges of color. Presses shifted from Gutenberg and his contemporaries’ adaptation of olive or grape extractors to increasingly complicated mechanical devices allowing for ever higher volume, ultimately maturing into steam-powered presses, starting in 1812 with Friedrik Koenig’s invention.
But designing and casting type remained relatively quaint and artisanal in comparison. In this part of the series, I look at how mechanical improvements allowed for faster and less expensive creation of more typefaces, as well as different sizes and styles of type.
A Punch, a Matrix, a Mould, a Piece of Type
Gutenberg accidentally invented the notion of the typeface. You may have heard the terms font and typeface used interchangeably. But traditionally, and in many current designers’ strict definitions, a typeface describes a set of characters meant to be used alongside each other. Each character in a typeface has an aesthetic relationship in stroke, height, and other aspects.
A font is a version of a typeface baked into some form. In metal, a font was one or two cabinet drawers of “sorts,” or pieces of metal, all in the same type size and type style. In digital, a font typically contains a single style, sometimes meant to be used only in a certain range of sizes, like for book-sized type.
Gutenberg had no form to follow for movable type, so he aped manuscript handwriting, as he was aiming to create something familiar, while the Catholic Church wanted it to be both familiar and identical. Allan Haley, a renowned typographer most recently with Monotype, says, “The Church wanted to have the same manuscript come out no matter where it was, no matter who read it.”
However, Gutenberg had to take the many variants a scribe might use by hand, both intentional and accidental, and normalize them into a few forms of a letter. (For spacing reasons, he created variants of many letters that were wider or narrower than each other.)
The method he employed to carve type is lost, and there’s some suspicion that he might have used a more primitive method than what was more clearly documented as in use just a few decades later. But it almost certainly followed the same steps as coin making and stamping designs in gold, both well-established arts: A designer would make a drawing and transfer it to a hardened-steel rod, called a punch. They then used absurdly sharp tools made of even harder steel that could shave off tiny pieces. “It sounds incredible that steel can cut steel in this way, but if the flakes are small enough, they peel off easily, until, like a microscopic sculpture, the letter, or figure, or number stood proud from its foundation,” wrote John Man in his 2002 history of Gutenberg and his milieu.
With no specialized profession of type designer, newly minted master printers in the late 1400s drew these designs. As Henry Lewis Bullen wrote in 1921 in the trade journal Inland Printer/American Lithographer, “Before types were invented these men had been master penmen and, necessarily, expert letterers. Each had developed a style of design of his own for his penwork, and naturally enough he either cut, or procured to be cut and cast, types of the same design.”
Remarkably, the earliest printed works show a maturity and beauty of form in type, despite its newness and DIY nature: For many decades, every print shop had to build each part of the printing process nearly from scratch. As late as 1683, Joseph Moxon’s definitive Mechanick Exercises on the Whole Art of Printing explains how to construct all the apparatuses needed.
First, a type maker hammers a finished punch into a block of copper, which is cleaned up and worked to become a matrix. The matrix gets placed into a type mould that lets the caster set its width — Gutenberg’s unique invention — before pouring in a boiling metal amalgam. It cools nearly instantly and can be removed and have the casting parts sawn off.
Despite being made of hardened steel, punches don’t last forever. An 1855 source suggests a punch can produce 100 to 150 matrices before experiencing wear, while a matrix can make hundreds of thousands to millions of pieces of type. The type itself could be very resilient if handled well and made of hard-enough metal. The Practice of Typography, a 1902 manual by Theodore Low De Vinne, states, “With kind usage a font of pica [modern 12-point type] may receive a million impressions before it will be condemned; with the same treatment a font of pearl [5 point] may of the face be worn out with less than a hundred thousand impressions.” By the 1800s, stereotyping and electrotyping let printers make a papier-mâché or wax impression of a page or pages of metal type and nondestructively cast a full sheet in metal that was actually used on press, reducing the wear on type.
As the master for all this, punches were both a gating item and a stumbling block. The task of making different sizes and styles of type improved only gradually from 1450 to the mid-1800s. “Each punch was an individual work of art. If it broke, the punch that replaced it could never quite be the same,” wrote Frank Denman in The Shaping of Our Alphabet, and cited in Patricia Cost’s seminal 1986 work on typeface design technology. Cost noted, “The quality of the punch depended as much on the artistic sense of the punchcutter as it did on his skill and precision.”
Then, one inventor changed everything with a couple machines that turned master craftwork into a series of interrelated professions, each requiring vastly less skill and knowledge across the whole process.
As a kid, I begged my parents to buy something I’d seen on TV or in the back of a magazine. It was a set of plastic rectangular arms connected by adjustable screws that, when set correctly, let you trace one object with a point on one arm and reproduce it, larger or smaller, with a pencil or pen affixed to an arm at the other end. (While they got it for me, I never managed to make it work well. In revenge on the tool, possibly, I earned a BA in graphic design.)
This was a pantograph, long in use by draftspeople. I didn’t know it in the early 1970s, but it was the pantograph and Linn Boyd Benton that transformed the business of designing and cutting type. Benton wasn’t the first to turn a pantograph to type, but he perfected a process that let a designer create a master drawing of each letter in a typeface, and then hand off the task to others who would use a series of mechanical tracing and reduction processes to carve a punch using a steam-powered blade. It was faster, more precise, and more consistent, and the machine didn’t require the skills of a master punchcutter.
Benton, in fact, had never cut punches before developing his machine. But he did create a companion invention that solved a second problem: transforming one set of drawings into a host of fonts. His “Delineator” let type cutters fiddle dials, much like digital type designers today can with OpenType variable fonts. “From one drawing it could enlarge a letter proportionally, or make condensed, extended, italic, or back slope variations the machine’s microscope attachment automatically conformed with the varying focal points,” Cost wrote. These transformations weren’t always pretty, because mechanical transformation can’t take into account all considerations of aesthetics and legibility. But it was a practical amplifier that removed a major bottleneck.
While Benton’s machines made it easier for a greater variety of typefaces to flourish in a far greater variety of sizes and styles and made it more affordable for printers and periodicals to acquire more type, the real breakthrough was how it complemented the Eighth Wonder of the World, created as he persisted on his pantograph: the Linotype, the subject of the next part of this series.
The Linotype, a mechanized hot-metal machine that produced lines of type at a speed massively faster than any hand typesetting could, chewed through matrixes and ate up punches because of its operation. And only Benton’s machines could feed that high-speed maw. Without Benton, hot-metal typesetting would have sputtered and stalled, rather than dramatically amplifying the speed and distribution of newspapers, magazines, and books as the 19th century passed into the 20th.