American Poet and Drama Critic William Winter Promotes the Mechanization of Typesetting and Reports on Progress to Date

Wm. Winter LCCN2014701174 (cropped)

William Winter, about 1915.

In 1864, in an article entitled simply "Types" in Vol. 13 of The Atlantic Monthly, pp. 615-621 American poet and drama critic William Winter explained how by the mid-19th century virtually all aspects of book production had been mechanized to a certain extent, including printing, papermaking, and to a lesser extent bookbinding. What had not yet been successfully mechanized on a wide scale was the most complex of the book production processes—typesetting. If anything Winter was overly optimistic about the efficiency of the typesetting machines, including those of the Americans Alden and Mitchel, that were in use when he published his article. Though Winter does not reference The Atlantic Monthly specifically it is likely that with the exception, perhaps, of some experimental use of typesetting machinery, nearly all the Atlantic Monthly was still typeset by hand. Winter wrote:

"It is only of late that machinery has been successfully employed in the most laborious and expensive process connected with the art of printing, —that, namely, of Composition. In this process, however, iron fingers have proved so much better than fingers of flesh, that it is perfectly safe to predict the speedy discontinuance, by all sensible printers, of composition by hand" (p.616).

"The composing-room of a large daily paper, for instance, presents, day and night, a spectacle of the almost ceaseless industry of jaded operatives. The need of relief in this respect was long ago recognized.(p. 616)

"In the interest, therefore, of education no less than health, it becomes imperative that machinery should be substituted for hand-labor in composition. At present, our printing-offices are no means the sources whence to draw inspirations of order, fitness, and wholesome toil. On the contrary, they are frequently badly lighted and worse ventilated rooms, wherein workmen elbow each other at closely set cases, and grow dyspeptic under the combined pressure of foul air and irritating and long-protracted labor. All this should be changed. With the composing machine would come an atmosphere of order and cleanliness and activity, making work rapid and agreeable, and lessening the period of its duration. I know that working-men are suspicious of scientific devices. But surely the compositor need not fear that the iron-handed automaton will snatch the bread out of his hand. To diminish the cost of any article produced—which is the almost immediate result of substituting machinery for hand-labor—is to expand the market for that article" (p. 617).

The problem of using early mechanical typesetting systems was that their efficiency was only obtained in doing highly structured and repetitive work. Winter was aware that since 1855 the New York printer and publisher John F. Trow had been employing the William H. Mitchel typesetting machines patented by Mitchel in 1853. Trow initially applied the Mitchel typesetter to set type for his New York City directories--highly patterned and repetitive work. According to Winter by 1864 Trow was also using the Mitchel typesetters to set the Continental Monthly magazine. According to Thompson, History of Composing Machines: A Complete Record of the Art of Composing, 10-11, the Mitchel machine was probably the first typesetting machine that was put to practical use for an extended period of time. At one point Trow owned at least five of the Mitchel machines.

Like other exponents of new technology, Winter ignored the disemployment inevitably created by new technology. He naively argued that as people would always be needed to tend the machines, so capital could not completely replace labor.

"The Sewing Machine has not injured the seamstress. The Power-Press has not injured the pressman. The Type-Setting Machine will not injure the compositor. Skilled labor, which must always be combined with the inventor's appliances for aiding it, so far from dreading harm in such association, may safely anticipate, in the far-reaching economy of science, ampler reward, and better health, an increase of prosperity, and a longer and happier life in which to enjoy it" (p. 617). 

In his summary of early efforts to mechanize typesetting Winter referenced on p. 617 Charles Babbage's intentions for his Difference Engines to typeset their mathematical tables and to set this type in stereotype plates. By this plan Babbage intended to avoid the inevitable typesetting errors printed in mathematical tables, which were so difficult to proof-read. It is possible that Winter had learned of Babbage's intentions in Babbage's autobiography, Passages of the Life of a Philosopher, also published in 1864. It is also possible that he read about Babbage's typesetting work in Hansard's Typographia or some other account. Winter was also aware of the pioneering invention of William Church that had inspired later efforts to mechanize typesetting. Winter's reference to Babbage is the first that I have seen that shows that people of Babbage's time outside the mathematics community were aware of Babbage's work with respect to mechanizing the typesetting of mathematical tables.

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