A journey in typesetting and technology

Written by Mark Collard

I learned to type on an Olympia typewriter like this.

After being shown around a typesetting business in Farringdon, London by a friend I decided that I wanted to try Typesetting as a career. Before I could go any further my first task would be to learn how to type. Unlike today when most of the text is supplied to the mac operator, back then the typesetter would have to manually key in all the text for any book, magazine etc which required a very fast and accurate typing speed. I was quite lucky that in our house we had a really good old Olympia manual typewriter. The next few months would be spent teaching myself how to touch type on this fantastic old typewriter. Also at about this time I did a “Sight and Sound” typing course to improve my skills. When I was happy that I had achieved a decent typing speed I enrolled on a typesetting course at The London College of Print.

The first week of the course would be spent practicing my typing skills on manual typewriters at the college’s facility at Back Hill in Clerkenwell. We then moved over to the college at the Elephant and Castle for the remainder of the course. It was here that I would get to use a photo-typesetting machine for the first time. At the time the college had Compugraphic typesetting equipment that we would learn to use for the rest of the course. Just like machines I would use in the future, the Compugraphic was code driven and not a “What You See Is What You Get” machine like the macs of today. Any type that was set would be imaged onto photo sensitive paper which would then be put through a chemical processor. Because I had no previous background in print, I had to quickly learn all the technical terms ie points, picas, leading, ems etc that were being used as well as all the codes on the Compugraphic to produce the correct size, font, style, etc. The real skill though would be getting what you wanted on paper without seeing it on the screen in its proper format. It would only take one wrong keystroke to see a heading come out in 240 point instead of 24 point. You knew you had got it wrong when 30 feet of film was spewing out of the processor and the rest of the class were in fits of laughter.

An Itek Quadrifont

My first job as a typesetter was for an instant print shop in the city of London. The typesetting machine I would use here for the next 2 years would be the Itek Quadritek 1200. I had no experience of using this machine and there would be no training, so it was a case of getting the manuals out and learning from scratch. The Quadritek was one of the first “affordable” typesetting machines and would become very popular in the late 1970s and early 80s. Like the Compugraphic, the Quadritek was a code driven machine and I had to learn all the mnemonic code and key combinations in order to get the type set the correct size, style, length etc. Typefaces came in the form of plastic segments and 4 of them could be used online at the same time. Type sizes ranged from 5pt up to a maximum of 36pt. Any work typed could be saved onto cassette tapes. The Quadritek would be the machine that I really learned the art of typesetting. It was a wonderful machine that was reliable and ideally suited to the type of work I was producing. At this time I would also learn how to use a Repromaster Camera and how to “paste up” the typesetting. These were skills that became obsolete with the introduction of the Apple Mac. I would use the Quadritek again when I moved to a newly opened instant print company in Covent Garden.

Sitting at the Quadritek 1200

I would be reaquanted with the Quadritek for a third and final time when I joined a publishing company that produced magazines. Here it was all about speed and accuracy. Apart from the ads that appeared in the two magazines that I typeset most of the text would be in single justified columns of around 21/2 inches (15ems). The two magazines could have anything up to 300 pages of editorial that would all have to be typed into the Quadritek. I didnt have the luxury of running out paper proofs for the editors to proof read, so it was a case of reading the work that was output on photographic paper. It was important to be accurate as possible as it was a tedious task of re-setting lines or paragraphs of text and stripping them in over the mistake. Again the Quadritek would prove to be a perfect machine for this type of work. It was also user friendly and I was able to teach some of the editors how to typeset their own work – something that would become more and more popular within the industry in years to come. When the magazines were sold to another larger publishing company, the Quadritek would become obsolete as I was going to be taught how to use a much more advanced typesetting system.

The Scantext 1000 workstation.

Before I could take up my position at my new company I would have to be re-trained on their digital typesetting system – the Scantext 1000. Like the Quadritek the Scantext was not a What You See Is What You Get system although later models would be. It was much more advanced than the Quadritek in that it was faster and able to take on more complex tasks. For the first time I could typeset more than one columns on the same page, do all kinds of rule work for forms and set type up to 72pt! It could also store work and fonts on 8″ floppy discs. The imagesetter, which was a separate unit could have anything up to 36 fonts online at once. After training I joined the one other typesetter to work on the five monthly magazines and several books that were going to be typeset. As well as using the Scantext 1000 input unit I also used the Scantext 950 which could do exactly the same as the 1000. The only differences were that the 950 had a smaller movable monitor and a separate computer housed in a compact portable cabinet that also housed the disc drives.

The Scantext 950 workstationThe volume of work was too much for two operators so a system was set up whereby all the editors could key their own work into Amstrad word processors using a series of codes for the headings, text, captions etc. The files would then be interrpreted by the Scantext and after checking the formatting on screen, printed out on photographic paper. This system worked well for three years until it was decided to have some of the typesetting done abroad on Apple Macs that were now starting to become more prominent in publishing. An offer was made whereby I could take the Scantext equipment as part of my redundancy package and still continue to typeset one monthly magazine and some book work.

The Scantext 1000 imagesetter.

With my newly acquired Scantext I set myself up at a friends printing company in Hackney. At the same time I bought my first Apple Mac computer – the LC. This mac cost £1,500 second hand and had a 40mb hard drive, 2mb of RAM and a 12″ colour monitor. After a college course on how to use QuarkXpress 3 I was quickly producing all types of work for various printers in London. Should any of my customers require film or bromide of the work done on the mac I would use a local bureau as I did not have my own imagesetter for the work done on the mac. I continued to use the Scantext for a variety of work but knew its days were numbered. As the Scantext 950 was portable, I did in fact use it from home. I could type in all the text with all the relevant coding and save it to 8″ floppy disc. I would then take the disc to work and run it through the imagesetter.

My first Mac – the LC.

In order to gain more typesetting experience using Macs I joined a large printing company in the East End of London. They were a company who like to keep up to date with new technology so I would have the opportunity to use all kinds of Mac equipment including Performas, Quadras, Centris and Powermacs. Not many people had ISDN which was very slow and email was in its infancy when I joined the printers so for a while the Syquest and Zip disc were the most popular means of sending jobs to be printed.

At first Syquest discs could hold up to 44mb this would later increase to 200mb. The Syquest discs were notoriously temperamental and many would fail to mount onto the computers desktop. The Zip disc was a lot better, it was much smaller for a start and at the time discs could hold 100mb of work. Syquest discs would become virtually obsolete once work could be burned to cd and dvd. Zip discs lasted a bit longer mainly because they were much smaller and also the fact that several different types of Mac had zip drives fitted.

Syquest disks.


The Powermac 9600 with floppy, zip and cd drives.

I decided to move to a financial printing company in order that I could put my years of typesetting experience to good use. At first I used a Power Mac G3 that had a 20gb hard drive and 128mb of ram. We used 21″ CRT monitors like the Apple Studio that filled the desk and weighed a ton. The work was produced using QuarkXpress with the keystrokes being provided in Microsoft Word documents. Later we used the Power Mac G4 Mac which had a faster processor speed of 400 MHz, a 40gb hard drive and 250gb of RAM that would increase in time to 1gb. The G3 and G4 were brilliant macs that were perfectly adequate for the type of work being done on them. They were reliable and because of the good design were easy to get into if a new hard drive or ram needed to be fitted. I still have G3 and G4 macs that are in use today.

An Apple Mac G4.

After a couple of years using the G4, G5 Power Macs were introduced. Whilst they had a faster processor, more ram and a bigger hard drive, they were much bigger and heavier and not nearly as good when it came to “getting inside the bonnet” to do any repairs or upgrades. At about the same I got to use the Power Mac G5, I also got to use a flat screen monitor for the first time. I currently use the imac all-in-one desktop computer which is a world away from the first mac I used 20 years previously.

Apple Studio monitor – all 77lbs of it.