Before the computer bug, there was the type louse

By

Dear Boss: A friend writes to tell me you've never seen a type louse. It's possible you never will, as the species is believed extinct. The last sighting at your address was some 40 years ago. May I expatiate to enhance your pedicular insufficiency?

The type louse took the blame for all

the gremlin acts common in newspaper publishing houses in the long ago, things we now blame on computer bugs.

Recommended: Default

I believe The Christian Science Monitor was the last paper in Boston to use movable type, on which type lice depended for shelter and sustenance.

When the ancient and proper Boston Evening Transcript ceased to publish, there was great concern over what the country

would do for a newspaper. Many Boston folks turned to the Monitor. In turn, the Monitor adjusted to the situation and - among other things - strengthened its coverage of financial news. The late afternoon edition didn't go to press until the stock exchange closed and the final quotations were in type. Then the Hoe stereoplate presses rolled. The Monitor now found that even though typesetting machinery was well in use, it could save time by setting the stock quotations the old-fashioned way. I'm sure you have no idea what I'm saying.

In the days of hand-set type, before the Linotype, a compositor stood before a "case" and picked out letters one by one in a tedious sequence. He laid the letters in a device called a stick, and each line was "justified" so they were all exactly the same length. From the stick the type went to a traylike "galley" to be "proofed" and corrected, and then laid into a form by the "make-up" and "make-ready" crew.

Locked by quoins into the form, the type now went to the press. As techniques were improved, the type went to a stereotype machine that cast a whole page of type into a single piece of type metal the right shape to fit on the rollers of a high-speed press. This process depended on the compositor.

In the days before machine-set type, a compositor was speeded somewhat by the "logotype." This was a "sort" that had more than one letter on it, say "the." This could be used for the, and for words like theater, theocracy, and these, them, and there. Other logotypes took care of ion, ism, ter, and so on.

The Monitor had the most modern technical department. But with a new need for speed with the closing stock quotations, it was found that hand compositors, with logotypes, were faster than the machines. Logos of the principal stocks were acquired (AT&T, for instance) as well as up, down, "unch," and all the fractions and dingbats peculiar to the stock market.

A couple of "comps" at hand cases could set the closing quotations sooner than the machines could. This went on at the Monitor for quite some time, and because type lice were extinct in all other print shops, they thrived at One Norway Street. The last type louse sighted, dear Boss, was fat from lapping ink off the financial news.

Do I sound facile with the lingo? It was in l922 that I first saw a type louse. Mr. Putney was foreman at the Freeport Press, and he printed the first catalogs for L.L. Bean. He did this on a Golding letterpress. When Mr. Bean wanted color, I was hired to come in after school at 10 cents an hour to slip-sheet the color inserts. As Mr. Bean needed only 2,000 copies, I was earning 20 cents an afternoon.

When Mr. Putney put the picture of the canoe shoe on the wrong page and had to reprint that signature, he said, "It's them exasperatin' type lice again, I'll have to spray." (It was no small matter; the signature was eight pages.) So then, wishing to inform me on all matters concerning graphic arts, he took the trouble to show me a type louse.

Now that we're on the subject, it's interesting to reflect on how printing-trade terms embellished our language. Hand-set type was in two "cases." The first, nearer the comp, was for small letters. The second, behind the first and above it at an angle, was for capital letters. Thus we have upper- and lowercase letters.

After using type, it was distributed back into the cases. Jumbled type not worth sorting was called "pi" and tossed in the hell-box. In Boston there was a Pi Alley that many folks thought should be Pie Alley. But it was littered with pi, not pie.

"Mind your p's and q's" comes from the similarity of p and q when in reverse in the case. (The d and the b offer the same choice to the type lice.)

Now, Boss, please step this way, and I'll show you your first type louse the way Mr. Putney showed me so long ago! Notice this galley of type, and look sharply as the little things move about. Let me separate the type a little, here, so you can look between. I'll pour in a bit of water; that drives them out. There now; look closely!

At this moment Mr. Putney slammed the loose type together with a clap.

Aha, Boss, by your dripping face and moist eye, I take it you've seen your first type louse!

Share this story:

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...