Typesetting in 1977

It is sobering to recall all the machinery we needed to set type in the BC-era (Before Computers). Well, I take that back. This was a computer—a Compugraphic, to be exact. This, along with the IBM Magnetic Tape machines, was the state of the art in typesetting via computer back in the late ’60s and ’70s. But it wasn’t digital. The output was photographic. Look at all the chemicals necessary to get a result. Then look at the hardware. With Compugraphic, you could get away with a small area or you might need an entire room for the upscale version.

I worked with the smaller CompuWriter II, but my dream was to get the Uniscan. The former ranged in price from $5,00o to $12,000—the higher the price the better the justification. The latter was $22,000. Both were text-only. Headliners were separate, or you’d have to own a Typositor.

Next time you complain about your iMac or laptop, think of what you missed (if you were born after 1970).



27 thoughts on “Typesetting in 1977

  1. compugraphicshu

    The machine to the far right was the CG Uniscan. I believe it cost 17,000 or so.. It was one of the first ocr scanners. In order to use it. It was designed for daily newspapers. In order to use it each editor would type his copy on an IBM selectric with one specific font ball. The scanner used a diode array and mirrors to input to the logic boards…

    When I attended the CG service engineer school for this, I was told that the character recognition boards were from a third supplier. When we asked how they worked, we were told on the FM principal, later to find out that meant f…g Magic.!

    There was a ROM read only memory that had the ibm type font burned into it.. As the document was scanned, one partial line of type at a time, the scan results of each full line were stored into memory. Then the ocr boards would count the total number of black bits in the character scan and limit the choice of which character it could be. Obviously a period would have less black bits that a W.

    Then electronically, each potential choice was overlayed against the ROM contents for those characters, and compared in a bunch of rotational positions to allow for paper skew. The error count was stored in a temporary memory. It would continue to do this for each possible choice and then finally take the lowest error count and deem that the recognized character, and output it to the center machine, the Unified Composer… Then repeat for the entire document(s) which were fed like a copier document feeder.

    If the final error count was too large or out of specs, it would generate an underline character to the Unified Composer to indicate a possible error. The idea of this process was to save the newspaper from having to retypeset a story, since the editor could originate that copy themselves.

  2. Dave deBronkart

    The machines in the top picture:
    – UniSetter … 4 fonts, 12 sizes (I think), input via paper tape or online
    – Unified Composer – typesetting workstation – you could keyboard directly into it or read in a paper tape from an offline keyboard; stored on 8″ floppies, capacity 300k each.
    – The UniScan (OCR beast) was rarely used except in BIG operations because it took so much training to prepare typed pages properly.

    In the big orange-toned image, from top:
    – CompuWriter II direct-input typesetter
    – CompuTape, I think, or maybe a 2961 or 4961 – newspaper typesetting machines – all they did was set galleys of type (but at a price 10x cheaper than the competition, when they were first introduced)
    – then the 3 machines from the top photo, again
    – CG 72000 headliner (Compugraphic’s keyboard driven alternative to the Photo Typositor)
    – ExecuWriter – an abortive attempt to sell chemical-based phototypeset memos into the executive office market! Right…:-) Well, people liked the look, but didn’t like the skills training (or, um, the chemicals…) It was introduced in 1974, a decade before the Mac & LaserWriter.

    More bits of history:
    And a page from the Encyclopedia of Computer Science & Technology: http://bit.ly/UznsSe

  3. Dave deBronkart

    Ha – what a find! That top photo was during my time working in marketing at CG – I was supervisor in Composition Central, their in-house type shop, from 1975-77, then moved into marketing and product management. Great stuff!

  4. Victor mabenge

    Shoo, nice to hear it straight from you guys. Those were the days. I still marvel at the work done then. Am happy with the mac but, went to a printing house where it is now possible for anyone to just feed text and pics into a website and press order, and the whole thing is produced by itself, no expert human input necessary. 🙂 I have started taking my music lessons seriously because at least, whilst computers can write and make music for you, it will be long before they don’t need creative human input!

  5. Michael Doyle

    GAs don’t realize how easy they have it, in realation to the time and effort it took to set simple headlines, slice apart letters to move them closer with a glue brush, a blade and a T-square. However, the ease of doing the job actually makes the person doing it expected to produce much more output than the Mechanical Art Designer and Producer of the past.


    We also used to send film to a photographic house, and when it came back the next day, we would send it to a retoucher, who would use an air compressor to spray paint the image to your specs, and hope it would come back the way you wanted it. BTW the bike messenger charges were piling up at the same time.

    Now the entire process can take as little as a couple of hours.

  6. Karen J

    Thank you for the memories! The pungent tang of acetic acid in the air. The weekly cleaning and dumping of the chemical baths. The vapors of rubber cement thinner wafting in your nostrils as you pasted-up. Skilled fingers wielding sharp x-acto knives with the precision of a surgeon. The yearning for a waxer and the thrill of finally getting one (you just better remember to turn it on enough ahead of time on Mondays so the wax would be melted again before you needed it). The math of figuring out and “spec’cing” type and the hieroglyphic codes marked on page after page of typewritten manuscript…which then had to be re-typed again without error into the Compugraphic with other codes by someone else. If you wanted headlines with individually kerned letters, you either used a film typesetter and laboriously exposed each letter photographically in a strip, developing the strip in an open tray of chemicals in a darkroom, or, you just cut each headline letter from the Compugraphic galley with your x-acto and slid it into position (that’s what made wax so wonderful!) Later, wonder of wonders, our crowning jewel was a Kurzweil character reader that could scan in the typewritten manuscript without totally retyping! I loved the craftsmanship of the process and could wow people with my ability to cut in corrections with a knife, but I will never miss the tediousness of speccing type. Give me “WYSIWYG” any day!

  7. David Merrill

    One major difference between print production then and print production now is how many people it takes to get it done. No wonder unemployment is such a problem! I remember the Compugraphic with the one-line display and the fonts on plastic film that you wrapped around a spinning wheel; and the Photon Pacesetter that exposed letters through a spinning glass disk; and the yellow six-level paper tape, flowing out the side of the keyboard, whose punch patterns I learned to read because there was no visual display; and the smell of acetic acid that followed me home. I remember the layout editor measuring column type on strips of photo paper that hung on a rack to dry. I remember transposing letters with the Xacto knife, and other crafty corrections whose detectability depended on how straight and square you made the cut. I remember mentally calculating leading and spacing to set whole blocks of different-sized type in one pass through the typesetter so they’d be sure to be straight for the pasteup people in the ad department. We cranked out up to four 24-page newspaper sections every week with those antiquated methods. And I haven’t been able to contact anyone from that mid-seventies Boston Phoenix crew since that time. They were seminal days.

  8. kathie s

    I operated a compugraphic at a newspaper in the late 70’s. There was no screen, so you really had to make a direct connection from your eyes–and the copy you were inputting–to your fingers in order to be accurate. It got a little boring and, on press nights, us typesetters got pretty rowdy–so you learned to type and hold a conversation at the same time. You didn’t want to mess up because “splicing” to correct the tape was tricky. It was a great experience.

  9. Nena Pavlik

    Not only do I remember the Compugraphic system (and thought it was a great improvement over the IBM Selectrics Typewriter) but I shake my head at the 3 day turn-around for hot type (and then we only had 3 proofs to work with so we wound up slicing and pasting, sometimes, individual letters to make up words!) and we thought that was state of the art. We’ve come a long way!

  10. Paul M

    Oh, my. I also remember the cost of redoing type galleys when the client made changes. One reason we spent so much time proofing the rough type galleys before the “real” type was set.

  11. Dan McCarthy

    I worked at CG in the 70’s and 80’s. One of our models had a non-functioning key on the keyboard = “CTL”. Our head of Qaulity, Tom Arnold, declared it was shorthand for Call The Lord.

  12. Mark Fearing

    I used the term WISYWIG the other day when speaking at a conference. I realized from confused looks that none of the younger people knew what it meant…I mean why would they? Of even our phone are WISYWIG now…

  13. Tom L

    Auto-correct? Spell check? Hah! REAL typesetters corrected typos by punching corrections on a blank patch of paper tape with a manual punch block — punching out the 8-bit ASCII or 6-bit TTS character patterns plus a parity bit from memory — and then splicing the correction into place on the paper tape roll for the photo machine operator to run and develop.

    Back then, you couldn’t leave it up to the machine to catch and fix typos for you, so the consequences made you more careful about your work.

    It seems that the more automated a craft becomes, the less concerned with accuracy and mistakes subsequent practitioners become. It used to be taken for granted that copy would be proofread, numbers checked, measurements verified. Now it’s taken for granted that they won’t. The critical eye has been abandoned to some degree or another in favor of unchecked reliance on software — with predictable results.

  14. Mark Alvarado

    I didn’t have to set type, just spec it and rubber cemnt it down (two more lost arts). I had my fair share of chemicals in the darkroom operating the stat camera. Those were the days, thought they would never end, glad they did!

  15. Stephen Gannon

    I operated one of the first compugraphic universal II computers imported into Britain. Other early typesetting systems I used were Photon 713. Harris Intertype and Addressograph Multigraph systems as well as Linotronic systems too before the advent of the Apple Macs

  16. Larry Launstein Jr

    I remember the good old days of using a typewriter. I remember the IBM Selectrics like they were yesterday.

    That being said, I also remember visiting print shops and newspapers and seeing their rather large linotype machines and press plates with the type and photos on them. It was quite the sight seeing paper going through them.

  17. Matthew Heim

    10 years later in 1987 we acquired one of the first “laser” Compugraphic typesetting machines. The novelty was that you could go beyond 72 pt and kern letters for reverse type! Makes me quiver just thinking about the high tech advancement of this machine. And for all the young designers: we got a deal on a package of 500 fonts (not font families, but actual fonts, i.e. Helvetica Light, Helvetica Light Italic, etc.) for only $48,000. We drove a hard bargain back then…

  18. Siebert Tenseven

    I appreciate the image you included of the processor fluids in their distinctive bottles and cube-shaped boxes. There are some aspects of the dark days of typesetting that I “wax upon”, but I would never want to go back to that level of chemical exposure.

  19. Paula Bell

    …I remember well – it seems the Compugraphic I worked on had a one line electronic display… the generation before the one in the picture… with a limited selection of type fonts on film we loaded on the drum before typing – one at a time. Editing often meant cutting and pasting a word (or letter) on a galley of type (I saved old galleys of discarded type to find letters or words to cut from) then the copy was “Pasted up” on a “light table” with a straight edge and very sharp exacto knifes on clay based layout paper with columns, boxes and lines inked first with my rapidographic pens of various point sizes (I went home slash marks on the back of my fingers from cleaning the tips), the gaint PMT camera to enlarge or reduce an illustration or logo, exposing film to make the printing plate, rubylith, masking sheets and burning press plates with a device that exposed the metal plate with an arch-welder rod. We could go back even further to the gel trays we made on a cookie sheet that could make up to 10 copies of a type-written document from a manual typewriter….

  20. sam crowl

    I worked at a print shop where Paste-up included pre-press. So when you needed a photo you would cut either zip-a-tone or amberlith for your photo window, take density readings off the photo to get your camera exposures, actually move the copy board to enlarge or reduce the size, make your exposures then put the film in the developer tray and rock the tray from side to side. After you ran it through the fix tray and the wash tray, we would hang them on a clothesline in the dark room to dry, and you weren’t done yet. Once you shot the line negative with the window you had to strip the halftone in and that was just for Black & White, if you were doing 4 color you had to do it 3 more times. Not even mentioning the Layout & Paste up which we actually did with T-Squares, Triangles , X-acto Knives, waxers and rollers, ah those were the days when this job took some real hand skills! I actually kind of miss it?

  21. Jennifer

    Ahhh – I was specken zee type in 1977 – could do the math in my head to fit the copy. All the mark-up lingo and symbols… “TNT” is still a favorite for “display” typesetting, if only in my head as I use keyboard shortcuts on my Mac keyboard towards that end. But my favorite contraption was the waxer. Clean, natural, warm. With a fresh blade in the Xacto knife, a sharpened blue non-repo pencil and a hot cuppa coffee nearby, “paste-up” was a satisfying job.

  22. June

    I hate to admit it (because it shows how old I am), but I remember the Compugraphic. I was just recently trying to explain to a much younger freelance designer just what was required – back in the day – to create a “mechanical”. She looked very confused.