Monotype: A 950-Pound Word Processor

Back in the 1940s, when computers could crash from a real bug, Monotype was the top option for detailed typesetting. Unlike Linotype, which quickly produced a “line-of-type” that was cast using molten metal, Monotype allowed the user to control–and easily change–individual characters. This made it popular for math, science, and finance, because it meant you could change a single number without scrapping all the other work you’d done.

I got a ringside seat to the inner workings of a 1949 Monotype keyboard when the company I work for moved our specimen from Baltimore to Boston.

  • At 950 pounds, a Monotype keyboard allowed a user to input text in up to four fonts at once–including italics, bold, and special characters.
  • No problem if the power went out–it operated on jets of compressed air, not electricity.
  • Note the two “peripherals:” a desk lamp (electric) and a holder for a sheet of paper (the manuscript)

The following photos are organized in slideshows.

Assembling the User Interface

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The keyboard has… a double keybank with five sets of alphabets, or a total of 276 keys. The extra keys are for small caps, italic, bold face, ligatures, extra characters and to control the space-sizing mechanism.

Assembling the Output Device

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When a key is struck by a Mono operator, one or two holes are punched in a 4-inch wide paper ribbon roll. At the same time, the width (set) of that letter is recorded on a counter scale above the keyboard. . . . With each succeeding key stroke, the ribbon advances forward and the width of each character is added to the total. As the line nears the end, a signal notifies the operator.

User Manuals

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But wait, there’s more!

You paid for your mistakes! Back then, changes on proofs were marked as either an Author’s Alteration (AA), an Editor’s Alteration (EA), or a Printer Error (PE), because with a setup like this, it mattered who paid to make that change. Heavy author alterations late in the process could wipe out a couple of royalty checks.

The keyboard is only one-half of the Monotype machine. That paper ribbon “computer code” was fed into a caster. The ribbon gave the caster instructions for setting the type, character by character.

Forward to 10:38 in this video to see the caster in action:

The type is cast with a jet attached to the center of the foot. As the matrix lifts clear of the cast piece of type, the cross block of the mold cuts off this jet and throws it back into the metal pot. Lastly, the type is pushed out of the mold into the type carrier, delivering it to the type channel. As the line is completed, it is advanced to a galley. The ribbon perforation positions the matrix and adjusts the mold for the next character to be cast.

This educational video shows the whole process using a Linotype machine (about 15 minutes):

Source of Quotes: The Monotype Story by Fred Williams, on APA-Letterpress (1984)

Hope you enjoyed this blast from the past of printing! Please like, comment, and share.

10 comments

  1. Wow, Marianne! It must be so cool to look at that machine in your office. Reading about the fact that errors had to be paid for kind of reminds me of trying to learn Fortran when computers still had overnight batch processing. We didn’t pay in cash, but we sure paid in time. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What an excellent overview of the entire process of how books were made! And the account of the monotype machine is like the steampunk version of word processing: cool, yet making us thankful that we have access to the digital method. Understanding the origins of this process is fascinating. Thanks, Marianne!

    Like

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