Wednesday, August 9, 2017

A Technical Appendix for June, 1945: Printing Time

In 1681, a young gentleman of Bologna, Luigi Fernando, Count Marsigli (Imperial Free Counts are a dime a dozen in northern Italy) secured a place in the suite of the Venetian ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. Or, as you were allowed to say without a trace of irony back in the day, the Sublime Porte. The appointment did not last very long, for reasons having more to do with high politics than anything Marsigli did. (Given his biography, he probably did a lot of cruising, but he didn't get into trouble over his private life until he was, like, totally old and gross, so who cares?) In the course of looking for his next job, Marsigli happened to drop a remarkable manuscript on the desk of the then-Emperor (His Sacred Imperial Majesty Caesar, by the Grace of God, Elect Roman Emperor, King of the Germans, Archduke of Austria, etc, etc), Leopold I. It was the Stato Militare dell'Impero Ottomano, and although not the up-to-date, ripped-from-the-archives report on the Ottoman army that it purported to be, it was some first class espionage, and got Marsigli that job, and the rest was history. Weird, eccentric, overwrought history, but history. 

But that's not what's important right now, because I'm talking about the report, which became a book: a profusely illustrated, magnificent volume, photostatically reproduced in the mid-70s as much for its beauty as the historical value of its contents. On the page reproduced above, text and graphics are combined by direct engraving on the copperplate by a master artisan, probably Dutch, in 1730. The reproduction is by the magic of Xerox, as mediated by digital camera work, transmitted through the Intertubes as an ASCII file, and so, from Windows 10 to Blogger to you.

That is printing then, printing now. It's amazing that printing images has gone from a high skilled job (engraving) to a low-skilled one (photocopying) and back to a high skilled one. (Coding. Although anyone can blunder along with the help of a high level blogging app.)

Maybe it's all magic?

Google Image search crowds a page with returns for "teletypesetter," but, as is sometimes the case, they all go back to a single web page by an old-time linotype operator.  It's absolutely crammed with information about professional page design back in the day, soberly laid out, albeit  in a Web 1.0 kind of way. And I have no idea who is behind it, although truncating the website takes me to an equally anonymous page, but with some photo credits to the "Bob Lang Collection." So that's what I'm going with. Bob Lang, of Monona, Wisconsin. Don't know, could be wrong. 

As Bob Lang[?] tells it, in 1962, he worked as a field operator for Fairchild Graphic, a division of the Fairchild Camera company that built photoreconnaissance cameras for the Americans during WWII, when punching Nazis was good, and spy cameras for the CIA afterwards, when punching commies was problematic. (Here's a link to Charles Stross' "Colder War," or atmosphere.) . With a company car (no radio, "problematic heater") and a selection of spare parts in the trunk, Lang roved the Upper Midwest doing service calls on the "composing rooms" that served newspapers and magazines, but also the retail flyer business and other advertisers. His world is Blackdot, R. R. Donnelly and Wisconsin Cuneo Press, the only one specifically mentioned as serving a major, metropolitan newspaper. The heater detail implies calls up images of long drives over Midwestern winter roads, but Crystal Lake, Illinois, former home of Blackdot, seems to cover that off well enough, and would have been a good hour's drive from Fairchild's "Chicago area" office. I have no idea if Time-Life's Chicago-area printing business lay in the hands of contractors, but the Publisher's Letter doesn't seem to imply anything so gauche. 

As far as the technology goes, Lang descends into the specifics of page layout pretty quickly, and I am not sure how far anyone is willing to follow my attempts to parse what he is saying. Before I get on with what does interest me in terms of large systems, however, I want to stop and talk about how this all gets done. The Publisher's Letter is pretty clear that Time depends on the skillsets of a small group of teletypesetters. This is a pocket rule for teletypesetter operators and machine tenders, showing "line gauges and code rules." Ironically (or something like that), that's not an exact quote, since Lang, in his chatty way, uses an ampersand for the "and," and Blogger can't handle ampersands.

Sixty years on, Bob or his buddies or someone can afford to run a storefront museum of linotype. What a nice retirement project!

Closely adjacent to that picture in my files is Iona College of the University of British Columbia. Which is not, in fact, a "College" in the classic sense of the word, but rather a building occupied by the UBC Department of Economics. In my day, beginning somewhere around Bob Lang's twentieth year on the job,  Economics shared Buchanan Tower with lame old History and English and whatnot, and this building held the Vancouver School of Theology.  Although even then, VST was in terminal decline, at least there was some lip service to the idea that the cure of souls was important, in the form of nicely manicured grounds. Now its old back campus is occupied by family housing, and let's not even talk about the rent that UBC charges. Let's talk about the Gothic grandeur with which the Department surrounds itself. 

Now that I've juxtaposed two images and talked around the salient point that I feel is to gauche to make explicit, let's talk about the "Politics Note" published in the 14 June 1947 number of  The Economist  (p. 929--30, if you need it for Document Delivery) under the heading, "Postal Service."

If you'll pardon me complaining out of character about the late-Forties style of The Economist for a moment, editorial really does not get the whole thing about "Who, where, why and what," and opens by mentioning that "there was a short debate in the House of Commons on Friday of last week on the recent deterioration of the postal service." For this to be news, I'd suggest, the story would have to name the speakers. It doesn't, of course. It goes on to outline the nature of the deterioration, as agreed by "both sides:" first morning delivery is now later, last evening collection is now earlier. It would, of course, be silly to explain why this is bad (except that the story will do so, in a moment.) Instead, it leaps frameworks from debate to the statement of the Assistant Postmaster-General (unless this person is an MP responding to the Opposition) that this is necessary to "save manpower," and "would do little harm."

I guess the appending of that little stinger justifies The Economist now changing frame again and explaining how earlier/later postal service does harm; although to do so it must bring up another curtailment in postal service hitherto unmentioned, the "suppression of all afternoon deliveries (except in Central London.)" Combined, this means that people who do not return for work until after late collection (no later than 6:30) will be "unable to deal with their private correspondence by return of post." By which I think that the editor means that when he works late at the office, he can't do business on a next-day's basis, although I may just be letting my dislike for the institutional voice of The Economist run away with me.

The note goes on to add that "[t] debate was, by tacit agreement, confined to the letter post. But there is another aspect of the postal services which is of closer interest to The Economist." (The Economist, unlike Flight, doesn't hold with the old-fashioned use of the third person to refer to itself.)  "Thousands of copies" of The Economist, including one for the University of British Columbia Library in faraway Vancouver, British Columbia, are taken to the GPO at Mount Pleasant, where, "in the past, and even during the war (except on a few occasions when the services were disrupted by the blitz)", this left plenty of time for The Economist to be distributed in England by the first post on Saturday.
Source: James Addison, blogging for the Postal Museum.
Connected to other GPO buildings from 1927 by the London Post Office Railway, and the first place to use optical recognition scanning, in the 1970s, the sorting station was built on the site of the  former, charmingly named, Coldbath Fields Prison. The picture shows it, or, rather, the attached Parcel Office, as blown the hell up by the Luftwaffe on the night of 18/19 June 1943 --a Friday! I bet The Economist was late that day. Perhaps deliveries in Scotland were held over onto the Lord's Day.

Since the whole point of curtailing late pickups at 6:30 and ending the earliest delivery was the shortage of overnight workers, there is a real risk that all Economist deliveries will be held up from Saturday to Sunday. The Economist proceeds to complain, although unfortunately I have truncated p. 930 and can't provide an exact quote. Is this a good place to point out that the graveyard shift is very hard on many people. High unemployment will drive people onto the night shift, but if you'll take this from someone who has done his share of night work in difficult conditions, you may, as an employer be disappointed by the results. I am going to propose, just for a second, that the people who flourish on night shift, and they exist, may be said to have a skill worth paying for. But then you have to pay for it with higher postal rates.

It may be straying too far into politics, but I often get the impression that The Economist misses the old days of systemic, high unemployment, and is blissfully unaware that, even as far as labour goes, you get what you pay for. Unfortunately, England is in the midst of its whole "Export or die" thing, and can't afford high unemployment, but the constant refrain of "In the future, when it is no longer a seller's market. . ." could almost be accompanied by rubbed hands and a maniacal laugh. (It isn't.)

This is a bank of teletype machines. They have keyboards, like typewriters. That makes them women's work.
The Wikipedia caption reads "WACS operate teletypes, WWII." 
I've probably quoted The Economist enough by now, but the peevish article about postal service comes a week after more concern trolling about the Labour Government's official abandonment of the principle of Equal Pay in the civil service. It seems that female civil servants will have to go on being paid less than they're worth, because the Government has determined that it would be too expensive, otherwise. (Employers: Don't try this one in wage negotiations: "I'd like to pay you what you're worth, but that would cost me too much." Or, wait, no, too late by fifty years. Wait. It works? Fuck.)

These are linotype machines, which are used to prepare plates for the presses.

Men's work (because of the industrial-type workings) or women's work (because of the keyboard? Tough call.

Or maybe not. As Fairchild's informative old manual tells us, we're looking at the "peaks and valleys of manual production" here. Clearly, greater speed and efficiency could be achieved by replacing silhouette guy with "top line automatic control."

In English, that means an input tape:

At least we're not in Player Piano country here: the tape is going to have be perforated by the Teletypesetter Perforator Operator. The real automation advantage is presumably that you can do multiple tapes, and the main market in the late 1940, is, as Time says, publishers with multiple printing plants. (By 1962, it's just easier to transmit the copy directly from the office to the plant, or the equipment is so cheap that the advantage of saving on operator time suffices to justify buying the equipment from Fairchild.

A more cynical person would suggest something about replacing men's work with women's work, but this is too simple. As the Publisher's Letter points out, you can't actually format a page in an illustrated magazine with a teletypesetter. It's the skill of the operator that does that, by manipulating line lengths and kerning to make room for images. Transmitting Time in the late Forties would presumably have required both photographic mockups and teletype tapes. run the tapes through the linotypes, and you will --magically-- have a page plate with room to insert your chosen photograph of a bloody-eyed Bugsy Siegel staring back at you, or the charred corpse of Grace Moore. It turns out that you can can save time, but you can't get rid of skill . . . .

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