An episode from the history of typography

But they could afford typesetters. It’s hard to realize nowadays what that meant.

If you’re like me, you spend much of your time with electronic type. I was struck by how strange a state of affairs this really is recently when my brother sent me a video about a curious episode from the history of typography.

In the advent of computing, Bell Labs was instrumental in developing a lot of computing technology. As part of AT&T, Bell was a monopoly, which meant it didn’t have to be as cut-throat about its bottom line and could afford to allow a group of researchers to follow their curiosity even if their work didn’t appear to yield short-term profit. From this arrangement we got things like Unix, which is most likely at the root of the operating system you’re presently using; Bell Labs also helped bring about the democratization of type.

Before the 15th century (at least in the West), of course, nobody did typing. After Gutenberg, typing was a specialized skill. Not only did it demand extensive training, but the equipment was expensive. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, Dr. David Brailsford reports that in 1979 the newest, most affordable typesetting equipment would cost $50,000—enough to buy a nice house.

A team at Bell Labs managed to get a hold of one of these machines, a Linotron 202. Fonts were provided on floppy disks, at great cost and in proprietary format by a company called Mergenthaler. The Bell team reverse engineered the fonts, which were in an obscure format, to create their own.

The video details a modern-day project hearkening back to the past. In 1980 the Bell team wrote a memo describing how they reverse engineered the fonts, as well as the problems they encountered with the 202 machine, but the memo was suppressed at the time. Today the “authentic” memo only exists as a photocopy of a photocopy, and so in 2013 Brailsford decided to recreate it using modern software but mimicking the functions of the original software and processes to make it as authentic as possible.

Today we take it for granted that a given computer has dozens of fonts and new ones are obtainable for free or very cheap. Even professional type families in the hundreds of dollars are vastly cheaper than they were a few decades ago. Thanks must go, in part, to the Bell Labs team.

(Thinking about this over the past week has got me a bit sidetracked—I even decided to typeset my dissertation proposal in Latex.)

 

Feeling the texture of text

Cross-stitched book sculpture by Lauren DiCioccio

The word text and the word textile have a shared Latin origin. This is readily apparent, but still it begs the question: What do texts have to do with textiles?

The word text comes to us from the Latin textus (via the Old French texte). In Classical Latin, textus referred to the construction of a linguistic work; in Medieval Latin, it had come to refer to written treatises or, more specifically, Scripture. The term textus, in turn, came from the word texō, meaning “I weave.” Textile, then, refers to a literal weaving of cloth and other materials, whereas text refers to a metaphorical weaving. Also related is the word texture, which refers to the quality of a weaving—I can talk about the texture of an argument or the texture of a tapestry.

But a text is never really just a metaphorical weaving. It is, always, also, a literal weaving of material and idea. We don’t always seem to appreciate this. For instance, we likely consider two different copies of a book to have the same text, even if they are different editions. However, a text must be written—otherwise it would just be a series of words or an idea. Therefore, the writtenness of a text must have something to do with its meaning.

This was the insight behind the Texts and Textiles conference in 2012 at the Centre for Material Texts at Cambridge. (Wish I could have gone!) This conference celebrates the meaning that materials contribute to texts (as, I must meantion, does the Document Academy on an ongoing basis, for those who are interested).

Still, our tendency to ignore the material side of texts is unignorable and worth exploring.

I’m not sure the extent to which this aspect of our view of texts is modern or new, but if it is, then the work of Michael Heim may shed some insight on the matter. In his book Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing, first published in 1987, Heim writes:

In the psychic framework of word processing, text is increasingly experienced as data. … As the writer or reader now controls the search process through a logically determined program, certain random and intuitive kinds of reading and consulting will no longer be possible in referencing procedures. … What one accesses on line will tend to be precisely what one is looking for—always filtered in advance by the terms of Boolean logic.

Ron Day, in his book Indexing It All, makes similar observations: He discusses how the concept of document has been eviscerated and fragmented as the modern concept of information.

In essence, the motto of information systems seems to go: “If you want to be more successful in giving people what they ask for, then limit what they can ask for.” Soon people come to ask for only what they know they can get… and this provides the grounding for two big information-age issues we’re facing today: filter bubbles and fake news. Overcoming these phenomena, it seems to me, requires that we remember how to feel the texture of text.

Scriptum est

Time and the written word have a curious relationship. In order to read something, we must have the written word at hand in the present, but the words must have been written in the past.

This might occur to you when you’re reading a historical document, say, or when you happen across one of your old notebooks. But it characterizes every interaction with the written word that we ever come across. Even online—though the temporal gap is certainly closing in some online forums; though they might purport to be “live,” there is still some delay. And generally, we don’t notice it. This was the theme of an article I wrote in 2016, “Documents and Time,” but there’s much more richness to plumb.

Lately I’ve been reading Vesa Suominen‘s book About and On Behalf of Scriptum Est, which is a philosophical book about librarianship. Suominen criticizes the majority viewpoint that libraries trade in “information,” arguing instead that libraries deal in documents. Of course, Suominen is not alone; there is a growing constituency of scholars championing the document perspective. But Suominen takes this further, proposing a new concept: scriptum est.

Scriptum est is Latin for “it is written.” As Suominen explains, the adoption of this term is metaphorical, coming from the Bible, where the phrase “it is written” refers to something divinely ordained. That is, it couldn’t have not been written. We aren’t meant to interpret the concept scriptum est as a divine one, however; Suominen simply wishes to emphasize that everything that has been written has been written. The concept seems to constellate several things: the past in which the writing was written, the act of writing, the state of this action being completed and the writing’s existence in the presence. As Suominen says:

The very notion of scriptum est particularly serves my concept of the library as a place where there are books that always represent the past.

Regardless of whether the concept of scriptum est is found to be useful in other ways, this aspect of the concept is quite interesting. It’s not that something was written; rather, it is written. Writing is, befuddlingly, an anachronism!