KENNETH DEZHNEV - DEZHNEV & CO., INC. - Graphic Communications Consulting

















posted: 9/23/16; updated: 6/15/18

posted: 6/15/18


AN OVERVIEW (partial draft)

This article covers, however briefly, all the major classes of powered machinery used to produce metal type—both foundry type and other types kinds of type. To start with, it’s worth drawing the distinction between “typesetting machines” and “typecasting machines.”
    “Typecasting machines,” in the strictest sense, produce only “sorts”: individual pieces of type that must be assembled by hand later. They do not have the practical capability of assembling letters in any particular order so as to compose texts.
    “Typesetting machines,” on the other hand, are always machines that are intended for the production of typeset texts, especially and typically books and other text-size matter. Unlike typecasting machines, typesetting machines have the ability to assemble in order, and cast (or otherwise embody), whatever letters are required for the text.


In the metal-type era, the only important typesetting machines were the Monotype Composition Caster and the Linotype. (There were also Monotype typecasting machines.) The Composition Caster cast individual letters and spaces, in the order of their appearance in the text, and then assembled them, broken into lines of the desired width (“measure”). A mechanical analog computer was used to calculate the width of the spaces needed to justify each line—that is, to make it fill the measure exactly, so that the type would form a solid block for printing. (The terminological issue of -setter vs. -caster is complicated by the word “Caster” in the machine’s name, but terminological inconsistency is to type what bug splat is to motorcycling.)
    The Linotype did not cast separate letters. It assembled brass matrices, one for each letter in the line, and “spacebands” between each word. The spacebands were wedged in to make the matrices fill the measure, and the whole assembly moved to a mold, where a single, one-piece slug was cast bearing all the letters of the line. The process was repeated for each line. Some judgment by the operator was required to make sure that too many or too few words were not set in each line, and to manually break words and lines accordingly. (If too few words were placed in a line, the spacebands could not expand to fill all the space; this meant that when the line was cast, a jet of molten lead could squirt out between the matrices, possibly onto the operator.)
    The Linotype is an amazingly complicated machine, and in operation it reminds one of the comical devices for which the cartoonist Rube Goldberg became famous. This was inevitable: the Linotype (and the Monotype Composition Caster) were designed to solve problems for which there simply was no elegant technological solution. (The digital solutions are not elegant either.) Each subsystem of the Linotype machine, considered by itself, is a very neat and elegant machine. It is only in combination that they look like a chimera—the proverbially impossible mythological beast with a lion’s head, a goat’s head sticking out of its back, and a snake, with head, for a tail—all co-operating to set type.
    Linotype material, by its nature, is not found in handset shops, except as a random junk or a few ornaments or special lines of type cast on a Linotype. Linotype is significant to today’s metal (and digital) typographers as a source of many important typefaces, for its immense and multifarious impact on the trade, and for its historical significance as a major vehicle for communication in the twentieth century. (Intertype was a Linotype equivalent that was produced by another company after the fundamental Linotype patents expired.)

“Typesetting,” of course, also applies to later technologies such as photoypesetting and digital.


Typecasting machines were not used to produce texts. They produced “sorts” (individual letters), typically in fonts (complete sets of type) suitable for use in handsetting whatever work required a given typeface. They might also, of course, produce smaller sets of sorts, as when a display job required a few letters of a given face. These machines fell into three categories:
    1) The top-quality machines used for foundry type (in the strict sense of the term). These were the pivotal casters of the 1800s and the later Barth machines (initial patents 1888), which were used by some type foundries in the years before ATF, and then largely by ATF. (There were also some other machines, comparable to the Barths, made in Europe for the production of foundry type. A—or perhaps the—notable European manufacturer was Kuco, in Germany. The only other name I know was that of a simpler machine, the Brimulta in England.) These machines, and I believe also the Thompson, were used mainly or exclusively by specialized typefoundries. Printers and typesetting shops would buy the machines in categories 2 and 3.
    David MacMillan of Circuitous Root has a historical census of Barth machines, including information on those known to survive today, on his Barth Type Caster page. As of 2016, at any rate (the latest dated information I have), the 25 or so known surviving machines are owned by Gregory Jackson Walters (Ohio), Patrick Goossens (Belgium), and one machine by MacMillan himself. These men, along with Theo Rehak and Micah Currier, have devoted great effort and expense to preserving these important and irreplaceable machines, of which only about 200 were ever made. Rehak produced type with them from 1994 to about 2004. He was succeeded by Currier, who produced type until 2013. The type was sold by NA Graphics, which also stocked fonts acquired from ATF’s inventory, and some fonts from the Stempel foundry. Goossens then acquired most of the machines, including all but one of those that cast text sizes. To the best of my very limited knowledge, only Walters was producing type with them, as of 2015. Given the limited market for foundry type, it is difficult enough just to preserve the machines.
    2) The Monotype machines that were specialized for the production of better-quality type for handsetting. These were the Thompson and the OA machines (a.k.a. “Orphan Annies” or “Display Casters”). The Thompson was an independent development by one Thompson, independently manufactured from its 1908 debut until the company was bought by Monotype in 1929. The OA was the most basic configuration of the machine that, with additions, became the configuration called the Composition Caster. Since the OA configuration was used only for sorts, it operated more slowly. This allowed the use of harder metal. (I would guess that the slower speed itself also made for better castings.)
    3) The Monotype Giant Caster and Super Caster. These produced type in the same quality range as the Composition Caster. The Giant Caster was produced by the American Monotype company, the Super Caster by the British Monotype company. The Super Caster was uncommon in the U.S., but Bixler, in upstate New York, has one, so it’s a significant factor in today’s metal type market in the U.S. These machines were also able to produce leads, slugs, rules, and strip ornaments. (The Elrod, below, also cast strip material.)
    I would guess that categories 2 and 3 each served distinct market niches. Perhaps the ability of the Giant Caster and Super Caster to cast a wider variety of material made them worth a slight tradeoff in type quality to shops that might only have money and space for one machine, Larger establishments could justify a more specialized machine that gave better type for more lucrative markets of specialized or high-end customers—perhaps alongside a Giant Caster and Super Caster for non-type material and less critical overflow work. There were doubtless other factors as well.

The actual quality of the type produced by a given machine depended to a significant extent on the quality of metal used, the skill of the operator, how well the machine was maintained, and perhaps also on the way the machine was set up for a given run.



The Elrod was made exclusively for casting strip material: leads and slugs (and rules? borders?). (The Monotype Giant Caster and Super Caster could also cast leads, slugs, rules, and borders.) Elrod cast the thicker slugs with round holes running longways through them, to save on weight and cost. 12-point slugs had narrow, rectangular holes running through them. Slugs were also made with a broad groove on one side. These were used for tying up type, with the string running in the grooves. (I don’t know whether or not any of these physical characteristics are unique to Elrod.)

All content © 2018 by Ken Dezhnev. All Rights Reserved.
The Winged Hat logo is a trademark of Ken Dezhnev.

Home  |   Reading  |   Type & Typefaces  |   The Composing Room    

Type Technology  |   History  |   General Typography & Criticism    

Digital Typography & Graphics  |   Editorial  |   Bookbinding    

Links  |   About/Contact  |   My Digital & Consulting Work

top of page