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Speed Contests of Manual Typesetters

Barnes Fast Typesetting binding

In 1887 three champion manual typesetters, William C. Barnes, Joseph W. McCann, and Alexander Duguid issued from New York A Collation of Facts Related to Fast Typesetting, Together with Portraits and Biographies of the More Famous Swift Compositors, and an Authentic Record of the Several Public Tournaments and Matches at Type-Setting, with Tabulated Statements of the Work Performed in the Various Contests, and a Reprint of the Copy from which the Best Records were Made; also Hints and Suggestions on Typesetting. This work documented the high point of manual typesetting as an occupation before the field began to be superceded by cost effective typesetting machines such as Linotype and Monotype. Considering the difficulty of setting type accurately by hand at high speed, the accomplishments of the so-called "Swifts" were remarkable.

In the introduction the authors note that like other competitive activities the speed of competitive typesetters had increased between 1847 and 1887:

"Forty years ago the printer who could set 1,200 ems per hour was deemed a fairly quick hand; at 1,400, he was fast; 1,700 was wonderful, and 2,000 ems per hour was considered among the physical impossibilities. Yet within sixteen years at least seven compositors have in public contests succeeded in surpassing 2,000 ems per hour...."

This statement confirms the near impossibility of the assertions made by Thomas Curson Hansard Jr. and William Turner Coggeshall in 1841 and 1861 respectively regarding the average or typical speed of that manual typesetters needed to maintain to earn a good wage, that "consequently he must pick letters at the rate of 144,000 per week, 24,000 per day or 2000 per hour. His rapidity of motion is therefore wonderful, and the exertion is so long continued that the business, although apparently a light one, is in fact, extremely laborious."

Walter Rumble, The Swifts: Printers in the Age of Typesetting Races. Charlottesville & London: University of Virginia Press, 2003.


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