Latest Accessions and Book Update

It’s past the midway point in summer, and my basement is full of lead and wood and books. Most of the items for the museum have now been acquired, arranged for, or are being made by various people. I have a few more special things to find and to order—some of those I want to wait a little longer, as they can be turned around quickly and I can refine my decisions. I’ll soon have samples of Linotype slugs (actually made on an Intertype, a competitor to Linotype after patents expired).

Two kinds of matrices—the molds from which metal type was made—that I’d really wanted to include in the museum recently arrived. One set is for Ludlow, a fairly simple kind of slug-casting machine designed for larger-sized type, typically employed in newspaper work. However, I believe one was in use still until 1990 at a printer to set the names that appeared on Yale University’s letterpress-printed diplomas (something I was remotely connected to at the time)!

Instead of using a keyboard or handset type, a compositor set molds into a stick, which is then cast as a single piece. This was used for headlines, ad copy, and other special purposes. It could also be used with a few tricks in casting or with a saw (a common item in printers’ shops) to create individual pieces of type. These brass matrices are kind of gorgeous as works of art, but they were workhorses.

I also accessioned two boxes of matrices for the Monotype Super Caster. Monotype introduced and purchased a few kinds of casting machines starting in the 1890s. The Super Caster was introduced by English Monotype in the late 1920s to allow producing larger sizes of metal type. (It eventually replaced the Giant Caster made by the American Lanston Monotype.) While casters from other companies competed, Monotype offered its own prized faces and brought its rigorous technological approach to the matter.

These mats were made in the Salfords, Sussex, Monotype factory south of London, the home of English Monotype for much of its history. The plant is decades gone, but Monotype has an office there. (The current Monotype was just purchased by a private equity firm, so the future of its offices is certainly not certain.) They were shipped to India at some unknown time, from where I purchased them. They have traveled some 20,000 miles—farthest than most mats, I’d wager. Hot-metal Monotype remains in use in India just as it does in other parts of the world in limited ways.

Based on the state of the boxes, including some very brittle newspaper, it’s plausible these were closed up several decades ago and recently rediscovered. The seller posted many dozen Monotype items all at once on eBay, including specimen sheets.

All of those numbers mean something! The typeface, adjustments required, point size, and other details. I have yet to find the decoder for Super Caster matrices.

Based on analysis by the Pygment Press on a Flickr page, these “mats” are likely mostly copper, a little zinc, and a tiny bit of lead plated with nickel or nickel and chrome. I’m not sure if these were struck from punches made on a pantograph or directly made by pantograph, but since they mostly copper and plated afterwards, I would imagine they were punched. (I’ll be writing about this in Six Centuries of Type & Printing.)

Monotype’s Electro Display Matrices were made through electrotyping, which means that a punch was definitely made on a pantograph, and then used create the electrotype matrix. (The electro matrices were designed for another kind of caster, but could be used in a Super Caster with an adapter.)

There’s surprisingly little information about the Super Caster online. That’s in part due to copyright. The majority of technological innovation in casting occurred before 1923, which in the United States is the current cutoff point for material absolutely known to be in the public domain. The date is different in the UK, but it’s complicated, because the duration still relies on the last surviving author of a work, even for corporate-produced matters. (It advances in the U.S. each January 1, and will move to 1924 on January 1, 2020.) It’s much trickier to learn about more recent equipment than old, a perishingly irritating irony of the digital age!

Someone has, however, digitized issues of the Monotype Recorder, the company’s magazine, which remains under copyright in the US and UK, but I doubt anyone will squawk about it because the only value is historical. Here’s a drawing of a Super Caster from 1951 accompanying details about upgrades made after the war. (Monotype’s Salfords plant was converted to military production for the duration of WWII.)

I’m almost through writing the book that’s part of the Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule project. I have the threefold problem of fitting into a tight word count defined by the page length, cost, and nature of the book (given that it’s being set in hot metal and printed by letterpress) and continuously finding more interesting details that I want to put in. I’m effectively over word count now as I whittle and complete the manuscript. Then I’ll have sensible people read it and an actual editor and proofreader go over it.

A small portion of the books and materials I’ve consulted in the writing of my little tome, spanning about 130 years. So many older titles are digitized and available online—with searching!—while others are manuscript pages, snippets, or ebooks. I’ve got two shelves of less-consulted books not shown as well.

A small portion of the books and materials I’ve consulted in the writing of my little tome, spanning about 130 years. So many older titles are digitized and available online—with searching!—while others are manuscript pages, snippets, or ebooks. I’ve got two shelves of less-consulted books not shown as well.

In the meantime, I received a dummy of the book and slipcase from the binders. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the book will be set in North Yorkshire, England (Nick Gill at Effra Press), and printed in London (Phil Abel at Social Enterprise Printing, formerly Hand & Eye). However, after much consideration, it’s being bound in Germany at the 70-year-old family-owned Buckbinderei Spinner. I correspond regularly with members of the Spinner family and it’s all terrific. My London printer was unable to get solid bids at binderies in the UK, so this is now a tri-national book instead of a bi-national one. (Nick at Effra is one of several people worldwide working on cutting new matrices for Monotype composition: new versions of old faces and entirely new faces! Nick made a new Super Caster matrix!)


The dummy is a mock-up of the final book and slipcase using the actual paper that it will be printed on and the book board and fabric that will cover it. It’s simply blank! It‘s still lovely to see. Just like the museum cases that are being built, the dummy is waiting to be filled.

Now please enjoy this 1884 illustration of a steam-powered robot typesetter that was the frontispiece for a book of printing jokes called “Quads.” Lots of efforts to set type by machine power were in process, and some sort of worked. But it wasn’t until the Linotype entered a newspaper composition room in 1886 that machines began to take over typesetting—with humans still operating the machines, at least.