The history of typesetting

Written by Mark Collard

Typesetting from Wood

The first printed books used wood blocks that had the text carved into them which which was then used as a printing plate. These plates were produced in a similar way as those for wood engravings – except text of a page of a book was carved into them instead of a picture.

Hot Metal Composition

By the middle of the 15th century movable type had been invented in Europe. The German printer, Johann Gutenberg, first demonstrated his invention in 1448. By 1462 Gutenberg’s invention became accepted and the use of it spread throughout Europe. Movable type is also called foundry type or hot type.

Type 'sorts' in their case and a compositor's stick.

Metal type was composited by hand.

In the middle of the 15th century the German printer Johann Gutenberg invented the first movable type. His invention was first demonstrated in 1448. It was not long before his invention became accepted and was starting to be used throughout Europe. The movable type he invented was also called foundry type or hot type. The type was made by casting each piece into a exact size from metal which was an alloy of lead, tin and antomony.

Each piece had a raised image of a letter, number or character. The raised image was then inked for printing. To set the type, letters had to be selected one at a time and lined up in a composing stick. Spaces were created by using pieces of type with no face on them. The lines of type were then placed by hand in a larger box made especially for housing the type. The lines were laid out exactly they were way the page would appear when printed except the type was backwards as if you were looking in a mirror.

Mechanical Composition

The first mechanized type casting machine was invented in 1884 by Ottmar Mergenthaler. His invention was called the “Linotype”. It produced solid lines of text cast from rows of matrices. Each matrice was a block of metal into which an impression of a letter had been engraved or stamped. The line-composing operation was done by a keyboard similar to a typewriter. The depression of a single key released a matrice of a character from the magazine that stored 90 characters. After a few rows of matrices were assembled, it was transferred mechanically to a mold-making device.

Linotype typesetting machine

The first keyboard operated typesetting machine

Modern type alloy was forced into the mold against the matrices and hardened almost immediately. The result was a bar of metal of the desired length of line with raised letters where the molten metal filled the impressions of the letter in the matrices. After using the type for printing, it would be dumped back into a pot to be melted down for use again. This machine was much faster than human-hand-set typesetting and therefore required less typesetting staff.

Another mechanical line composition machine called the “Teletypewriter” was invented in 1913. This machine could be attached directly to a Linotype or similar machines to control composition by means of a perforated tape. The tape was punched on a separate keyboard unit. A tape-reader translated the punched code into electrical signals that could be sent by wire to tape-punching units in many cities simultaneously. These duplicate tapes were used to operate line-casting machines like the Linotype.


Phototypesetting or “cold type” systems first appeared in the early 1960s and rapidly displaced continuous casting machines like the Linotype. These devices consisted of glass disks (one per font) that spun in front of a light source which selectively exposed characters onto light-sensitive paper. Originally they were driven by pre-punched paper tapes. Later they were hooked up to computer front ends.

Phototypesetting machine

A Quadritek 1200 photo typesetting machine. This is the actual machine I used between 1983-1987.

One of the earliest electronic photocomposition systems was introduced by Fairchild Semiconductor. The typesetter typed a line of text on a Fairchild keyboard that had no display. To verify correct content of the line it was typed a second time. If the two lines were identical a bell rang and the machine produced a punched paper tape corresponding to the text. With the completion of a block of lines the typesetter fed the corresponding paper tapes into a phototypesetting device which mechanically set type outlines printed on glass sheets into place for exposure onto a negative film. Photosensitive paper was exposed to light through the negative film, resulting in a column of black type on white paper, or a galley. The galley was then cut up and used to create a mechanical drawing or paste up of a whole page. A large film negative of the page is shot and used to make a plates for offset printing.

One of the most popular photo typesetting systems was the Quadritek was was introduced in 1977. It allowed users to have 4 fonts online at the same time compared to having one font like the old IBM composer, this was a huge step forward. The fonts came on a glass wafer for each weight which contained all the characters. Whatever was typed into the Quadritek could be saved onto a cassette data tape. These were the days before “What You See Is What You Get” so the Quadritek user had to memorise codes and key combinations in order to get the type set at the right size, style, length, width etc. It was the Quadritek 1200 that I used between 1981 and 1987.

Digital Era

The next generation of phototypesetting machines were those that generated characters on a Cathode ray tube. Typical machines from this era were the Alphanumeric APS2, IBM 2680, VideoComp and Linotron 202. These machines remained the popular choice for phototypesetting for much of the 1970s and 1980s. Such machines could be ‘driven online’ by a computer front-end system or take their data from magnetic tape. Type fonts were stored digitally on conventional magnetic disk drives.

An early computer aided typesetting machine.

An early computer aided phototypesetting machine

Character-by-character computer-aided phototypesetting was in turn rapidly rendered obsolete in the 1980s by fully digital systems employing a raster image processor to render an entire page to a single high-resolution digital image, now known as imagesetting. The first successful laser imagesetter, able to make use of a raster image processor was the Monotype Lasercomp. ECRM, Compugraphic and others rapidly followed suit with machines of their own.

Early minicomputer-based typesetting software introduced in the 1970s and early 1980s such as Datalogics Pager, Penta, Miles 33, Xyvision, troff from Bell Labs, and IBM’s Script product with CRT terminals, were better able to drive these electro-mechanical devices, and used text markup languages to describe type and other page formatting information. The minicomputer systems output columns of text on film for paste-up and eventually produced entire pages using imposition software.

An early Apple Mac computer

Macintosh invented the graphical user interface

The latest phase of typesetting is from dedicated typesetting machinery to computers running off-the-shelf software with a WYSIWYG graphical user interface. Apple Computer Co. started this revolution with the Macintosh computer in 1984. The next year Apple launched the LaserWriter printers that were driven by Adobe Corp.’s PostScript page description language. Desktop Publishing (DTP) was then born. With the cost of computers, software and fonts dropping rapidly, typesetting today is available to more people today than could even read when Gutenberg developed his first press.

Today we have technologies that include direct computer-to-plate output (bypassing paper or film) and increasingly sophisticated graphic and page layout software that is easy to use.