Hello all,

I'm launching a blog called Typositor. As if the world needs another design or type blog. But I plan to focus on pre-digital Graphic Arts technology and workers on a regular basis, so I'm hoping it will be a slightly different voice. If you remember, and especially if you used the VGC Typositor in its heyday, I'm wondering if you might comment on any technical aspects of this maiden article. A few xxx's are in place as I need to fill some research holes, but I'd love anyone's two cents on any aspect of this post. It's a bit long and has a personal angle to it, but I wanted to establish a voice for this first posting and introduce the blog's name in the process.

I'm also looking for images of the machine, which are very rare on the web. If anyone has leads in that department please let me know.
Many thanks in advance.

Patrick King

Title TBD. The Typositor. Learning my kerning. Learning to Kern. Typositor. A new blog. An old tool.

In the bitter Wisconsin winter of 1977, having dropped out of my second art school in two years, I found myself working in a mail house, hauling boxes and counting travel brochures, the only male in a team of middle aged women. When I couldn’t bear another day peppered with conversations revolving around that week’s sales at K-mart as they sorted glossy tri-folds for exotic destinations they would probably never see, I assembled a portfolio of design projects consisting mainly of assignments from the single year of design I’d studied at Minneapolis College of Art and Design and a handful of illustrations and ads I’d created for local businesses through my teens. Having checked out my first Graphis Annual from our local library at the age of ten, coupled with a father who worked on the production side of the newspaper business, I was quite familiar with the industry and dabbled in my share of design for hire in between my quest to be Andrew Wyeth.

Racine, Wisconsin at that time was an industrial Mecca, a hardscrabble, Union town just 60 miles North of Chicago and 20 miles South of Milwaukee. Case tractors, Massey Ferguson, Jacobsen Mowers, S.C. Johnson and Son, Walker mufflers, InSinkErator, Twin Disc and the soon to close Western Publishing, at the time the largest printer in the world. Their Golden Book division alone supported illustrators for miles around. Design firms and ad agencies abounded. Work was plentiful for industrious practitioners, the older of whom referred to themselves as Commercial Artists while the younger specimens preferred to be called Graphic Designers.

I presented myself to and received a bit of encouragement from some local firms, but they usually suggested I go back to school and raised their eyebrows when I told them that I didn’t really want to be a designer forever. I’d dropped out of Minneapolis College of Art and Design to study painting at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and had sworn off spending my life in their field. If I told a designer, then, as now, that I’d really rather spend my days painting, it was often met with a dismissive grunt of “I’m sorry our profession isn’t good enough for you. So go paint, why don’t you?”

The only potential employer who found my ad hoc portfolio promising was the owner of a small type house and service bureau called Wisconsin Graphic Arts. They occupied a nondescript cement block building just off the tracks in a neighborhood of warehouses that had seen better days. A curmudgeonly character ran the joint. He was not a veteran of the industry, but had somehow purchased it as a business venture. Or won it in a poker game. A decision he seemed to regret daily. The staff prior to me consisted of his ex daughter in law and another woman who’d learned enough about type to set passable galleys on one of two Compugraphics.

The back room reeked of darkroom chemicals and was dominated by a photostat camera, a guaranteed profit center for anyone fortunate enough to have one in those days. And in the corner, behind a black curtain in its own closet sized enclave sat the Typositor. A gold mine, if you had clients willing to spend over a dollar a word for premium display typesetting. In my first week on the job I had a five minute tutorial on the machine, was given a headline to set, mustered up everything I learned in the single letterspacing exercise I produced in Graphic Design 101 and from that day on the Typositor was my domain.

The Typositor, manufactured by Visual Graphics Corporation between 19xx and 19xx, was a simple analogue solution to fine tuned typesetting. While it entered the Graphic Arts landscape at the same time as the xxxxxx, xxxxxx and other photo based typesetting methods which were quickly replacing centuries of setting via lead, it could have existed as early as photography itself, its technology was so basic.

The first phototypesetting machines such as xxxxxxxxx had a limited number of kerning pairs and while overall tracking was available as a setting, individually kerning characters was nearly impossible. At settings above 18 point, display type wasn’t going to be pretty. Yet many settled for the clunky headlines, not wanting to incur the Cadillac expense of type set on the Typositor.

Typositors were, in essence, photo enlargers. The size of your type was determined by the distance of the lens from the photo sensitive paper underneath. The paper came in rolls, about 4” in depth. Each font was stored on a roll of negative film, about 3” in height. Crisp, exquisite characters imbedded in silver. Bearing a slight resemblance to a film editing machine, you loaded your font onto two spools and threading it in the middle above the lens. To find your chosen letter or symbol you grasped a spool on either side and rolled your way to it. And rolled and rolled and rolled. As with audio or video tape, finding what you needed quickly simply wasn’t going to happen, and the advent of non-linear digital editing one wondered how we tolerated the endless searching.

Once you found your character, you slowly rolled back and forth to position it square under the light source, which would faintly project your letter onto the photo paper in the tray. After checking your focus a push of a button exposed the paper to the character, and in a split second a beautiful, crisp, black letter was born. You then rolled on to the next letter, slowly positioning it in place, then fine tuned your kerning by laterally adjusting the photo paper ever so gently. Expose again. And so it went until you had a strip of paper containing the logo or headlines for which the client was willing to pay a hefty premium. Efficient it was not. Yet the world had never seen an instrument of typesetting capable of such absolute control of letter spacing. What you wanted you got. Tight, not touching, or even tight, sometimes touching became a favorite mark-up note of art directors and designers. In the hands of a skilled typesetter, the Typositor was an instrument to be played, spewing headlines that had only been the dream of those encumbered in lead or wood for all those years.

Even the most lackluster designers in that era demanded fine typesetting, and got it, if they could afford to employ the Typositor or one of its competitors, the xxxx or the xxxx. As with Kleenex, the VGC moniker became that of the process itself, regardless of its origin. A good type salesman knew his customers’ taste in letter spacing and the larger a type house’s library the more they could charge. In the 1980s I had bookshelves heavy with type catalogs from around the country. Many of which I paid as much as $150 for. I recall searching high and low for a particular cut of Simoncini Garamond that I’d seen in a headline, finally tracking it down at Western Type in Kansas City. A phone call was placed with a newsman’s urgency, dictating the headline and crossing my fingers on the kerning instructions. Not unlike ordering a steak, one type house’s tight - not touching was another’s practically kissing. I waited 2 or 3 days for that headline. Instant gratification was rarely an option. Good planning was essential.

Absent a budget for Typositor set type, your next best alternative was Letraset or its poor cousin Chartpak. But their limitations of typeface choices and sizes, the need to spend additional money on photostats and the last minute trips to the art supply store because you’ve just burnished the last “e” from a sheet whose texture is beginning to resemble surface of the moon left you cursing the client who wouldn’t pony up for Typositor set type.

But in a time where setting a simple business card could cost $100, a full identity project easily $1,000, cutting corners on type expenditures became an art form unto itself. Designers became surgeons with razor blades, endlessly measuring, capable of re-leading eight point type and otherwise turned pieces of illustration board into carefully calculated collages, often fine tuning their design in the process. A single letter correction could add at least $50 to the type costs, which often could not be billed back to the client. If, on the other hand your client was especially edit happy and you were using an expensive type house, you hit the jackpot. Your profit increased exponentially, thanks to the industry standard of marking type up by 20%. Some firms derived as much as a third of their revenue from type markups. $30,000 type bills for annual reports were not unheard of. Until the day the Macintosh arrived, and dumped the responsibility (disguised as freedom) of setting type in the lap of designers, most of whom labored fruitlessly to produce anything resembling the beauty of what a skilled type house crew could deliver. Overnight, type as a source of revenue for designers disappeared. How could we charge for something that we could now magically spew from our new Macs, seemingly for free?

Between 1984 and 199x Apple, along with Adobe would ensure a quick death of the relatively short era of all forms of photo typesetting. Equipment manufacturers were left only as holders of intellectual property in the form of the typefaces for which they owned copyrights. They found a way to join the digital revolution or they found themselves out of business in very short order. Owners of type houses, from Mom and Pop operations in basements to mega shops employing hundreds of skilled, union typesetters hung on for awhile, a few morphing into service bureaus, small print shops, or the still nebulous world called Desktop Publishing. But most simply shut down. Production of X-Acto blades, rubber cement (and thinner), illustration board and transfer type plummeted. The untold thousands of jobs lost in a myriad of industries whose sole purpose was to help us take the words of our clients and do whatever was needed to turn them into ink on paper is one of the great un-reported business stories of the last century.

34 years after the parting of that curtain to reveal the Typositor upon which I would hone my kerning skills I purchased a domain in its name to house this blog in homage to it and to all pre-digital graphics technology, which I plan to highlight often as an editorial focus of this new blog. I welcome stories and contributions from anyone who lived through the rubber cement wars. Happy reading, all.


Corrections: typositor film was 2" in height.

On the Typositor itself, the paper was a roll, 2" in height, moving through a fixed channel. On other machines that used the 2" film fonts, larger sheet stock rather than rolls could be used.

I still recall the day when my boss tossed our last Typositor, along with all the fonts, in a dumpster because that era was clearly over.

Thanks so much majus. I did come across the 2" correction. I'm hoping to go down to House Industries to take a look at their collection of the original Phototype collection they inherited.