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  • Newsletter Issue #1048

    February 3rd, 2024


    In the early days, I didn’t intend to become expert at using Apple gear. I didn’t even intend to learn word processing or even typesetting. But the situations at hand forced me to adapt.

    In the mid-1960s, I decided to create a magazine devoted to my favorite subject — flying saucers or UFOs. All right, I guess I was sort of an eccentric teenager, but I preferred reading and writing to athletics, although I was a weightlifter.

    In any case, as an avid newspaper and magazine reader, I preferred justified text, something not readily accomplished on a simple electric typewriter, such as my SCM. So I followed the scheme employed by my friend — and first employer — Jim Moseley — someone well known among followers of UFO lore. And that meant typing twice, taking the page and entering the number of characters needed to fill a line. You then type again, adding extra spaces as appropriate, and, poof, you have justified text.

    Of course in the real world, you used a typesetting machine, which used hot lead to generate text. Well, at least until cold typesetting and phototypesetting took over.

    I was first exposed to the new cold typesetting techniques in the late 1960s, first with the IBM Executive, a typewriter that delivered proportional spacing. So, yes, the letter “M” was wider than the letter “I.” Another IBM invention, the Selectric Composer, in a sense combined the Selectric with the Executive. You could switch alphabets by changing small metallic balls, and, when you typed the second time, a little wheel to adjust spacing to fill out the line. A more expensive version used punch cards to store the text and deliver a justified version automatically when it printed out the page.

    This may all seem clumsy to you, but I turned out more than a dozen magazines that way. But rather than buy one of those Composers, which cost several thousand dollars, I found one at a local high school. The district administrator allowed me to use it after hours, so long as I bought ink cartridges for him from time to time.

    From cold typesetting, I navigated to phototypesetting. I even earned a decent living at it beginning in the mid-1970s. I first began to use a CompuGraphic CompuWriter. Instead of struggling with hot lead, it put the letters on photosensitive paper, which then had to be developed into a visible image in a smelly processing machine. Hot type was on its last legs.

    Yes, there were competitors, from Mergenthaler Linotype, Varityper and other companies. But CompuGraphic brought the technology to more users with its simpler interfaces and lower prices. In that sense, it was the Apple Inc. among phototypesetting manufacturers.

    When I came to New Jersey to begin a new life after a divorce, I needed to rebuild my income. So I got myself a gig at a local typographic studio and learned the craft. Some of those machines forced you to work “blind,” because you couldn’t see the results of your work as you were typing on a special keyboard. Instead, the output was stored on punch tape, which was placed in a reading device on the actual phototypesetting machine to deliver output. The CompuWriter, in contrast, combined the keyboard with the output capability, but you were still limited to seeing a single line of lettering on a primitive LCD display. After you pressed Return, it would output that line of text onto the photosensitive paper.

    Fonts came in the form of film strips, placed upon a spinning drum. The ComuWriter IV and later devices had a lens array to deliver different sizes of text. Once output, the galleys were sent over to an artist or an art studio to assemble the text on a layout board.

    CompuGraphic was expert at delivering user friendly solutions. Sort of, and the magic bullet was the EditWriter, which combined a word processor with a phototypesetting machine in a single unit. Your work was stored on a large floppy disk, and you could read many lines of text and edit them before output. It was a sure way to reduce typos.

    My first exposure to the technology was the EditWriter 7500, a year or two after its introduction in 1977. At the time I was working at a prepress studio in the heart of New York City, between Fifth and Madison Avenues. Exploiting my mechanical inclinations, which dated back to my days of assembling tube radio kits as a teenager, I learned to do routine maintenance on these machines. Anything to command a higher wage.

    And, yes, I was even earning some extra cash writing articles on UFOs for national magazines.

    In 1980, CompuGraphic released the EditWriter 7700, mostly identical to the original, except that it added a two-speed capability to the drum. In normal mode, it operated essentially the same as the 7500, which was still being marketed. But if you set a switch, it would run twice as fast, and you’d hear a loud whirling sound when a job was being output.

    Alas, the technology was clunky. On more than a few occasions, the film strips would separate from the spinning drum and cause, shall we say, a mess.

    It wasn’t long before analog film gave way to digital, however.

    In 1981, my employer upgraded to the CompuGraphic MCS 8400. It separated the keyboard, also dubbed MCS, from the output device. The keyboard design was not dissimilar to the EditWriter, so it required no retraining. Fonts were stored on floppy disks, digital characters, so there was no need to fret over possibly damaged film strips.

    But traditional typesetting was on the way out.

    In 1984, the Apple Macintosh arrived, delivering a graphical display and a mouse, to make a personal computer user friendly. The following year, one of the first desktop publishing applications, Aldus PageMaker, arrived. It adapted the technology of a traditional pasteup artists’s layout board to design completed pages for publication. You could create proofing pages and output at low resolution on a laser printer, such as the original Apple LaserWriter. If all was good, you sent the text via network, or on a floppy, to the phototypesetting device.

    It wasn’t long before other desktop publishing software was released. So QuarkXPress placed text in frames, which allowed you to design it by entering precise measurements. Someone from Quark Inc. once told me that they used traditional typesetting techniques and adapted them to the Mac platform. That’s one of the reasons why it soon largely supplanted PageMaker, at least for a while.

    These days you don’t even need phototypesetting equipment. Even a cheap laser printer, such as my Brother HL-L5100DN, provides acceptably sharp text.

    In some ways, the elements of page design are similar, although you also have to design a version that displays acceptably on a web site. In 1994, Adobe, the inventor of the PostScript page description language that lives on in PDF and other forms, bought Aldus, thus acquiring PageMaker. In 1999, Adobe InDesign was introduced, borrowing a lot from its predecessor, so it was fairly easy to adopt one’s skills for the latter. QuarkXPress still exists to this very day, but the advertising and publishing industries have largely migrated to InDesign, in part because Quark Inc. made serious strategic mistakes in embracing new technologies, not to mention offering terrible tech support in the early days.

    In effect, the Mac brought typesetting to the masses, and it wasn’t long before anyone with basic skills at typing, design and visualization could deliver jobs that were almost as good as the professionals delivered in the old days. Thus signaled the death of that profession.

    At 40, Apple continues to introduce new technologies in the Mac. But many of the skills I mastered with my first exposure to them in the 1980s are still relevant. At least some things haven’t changed, at least not yet. In fact, as recently as a few years, I helped Chris O’Brien, the former cohost for my radio show, The Paracast, put together one of his books for a publisher.

    So will there be a 50th anniversary to celebrate? The Mac has been declared dead and buried for years, but Apple continues to come up with new tricks. So, for now at least, I expect the platform will continue. But it’s very possible Apple is working on a successor product even now, and, no, the iPad won’t cut it.


    Gene Steinberg’s Tech Night Owl Newsletter is a weekly information service of Making The Impossible.

    Publisher/Editor: Gene Steinberg
    Managing Editor: Grayson Steinberg
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