Appendix: A Brief History of Typesetting

Appendix: A Brief History of Typesetting

“I want to talk about the story of Wapping partly because I like talking about it, but also because Wapping is a microcosm of the issues that face us now. It puts them all in a nutshell.” Rupert Murdoch, November 1989, New York City

Movable type was invented by Johann Gutenberg in 1440. Before then monks copied books by hand—which took, unsurprisingly, years. He melted lead into the shapes of individual letters, combined them to form lines of type, and then pages. The process of sticking the little lead blocks together was called typesetting. The lead was slathered with ink, mounted on a modified wine press over a sheet of paper, and printing was born.

Gutenberg’s press was so good that it remained pretty much unchanged for centuries. In the 1700s, Ben Franklin printed Poor Richard’s Almanac with movable type. At the Franklin Museum in Philadelphia you can watch them turn out pages just as Ben did. You can even ink a page yourself, if you girlfriend isn’t tugging at you to get lunch.

By the early 1900s there were more than 100,000 people employed as typesetters and machines such as the Monotype and Linotype automated constructing lines. Type text on a keyboard and voilà, a line of lead type would be melted on the spot. Inventors tried to make up whole pages automatically, but mechanical contraptions weren’t up to the task. Mark Twain lost almost everything investing in such a machine—his own “dot com” business.

Lead pages are heavy, take up lots of space, and are a real problem if you drop them, especially on your foot. In the 1960s there was a significant departure from the technology of the Middle Ages: photolithography. An image of the page was made with a camera. The resulting film (no different than a regular photograph) was placed on top of a metal plate and bathed in chemicals that ate the metal wherever there wasn’t type—leaving a surface with raised type. The plate was inked and used to print.

The process was called “cold type” because in wasn’t like melted lead which was, um, hot. In the 1970s computer-based typesetting systems appeared. They cost millions of dollars and were difficult to use, but technology advanced furiously. In the late 1980s, Time magazine collaborated with two programmers to create software called QuarkXpress that did typesetting using the new Macintosh desktop computers. What had taken days with knife and film using older methods could be done in seconds with a Mac and a mouse. Quark and similar systems such as Atex made a fortune for the programmers, however fewer people with less skill were needed to make pages.

It was at this juncture in technology that Rupert Murdoch bought the prestigious London Times newspaper from Lord Ken Thomson of Thomson publishing. Lord Ken was no fool and after one labor strike too many (the journalists struck just two months after getting the printers back to work), he decided to cash in on the value of the word “prestigious.”

The Times was still being set in hot lead. Every other major newspaper in American and Australia was using the newly developed photocomposition systems, but the printer’s union in London was resisted change successfully—thereby, in their estimation, protecting jobs.

But Murdoch was not impressed with the union. He recounted, “Many of them, for example, ninety percent of the News of the World publishing department, had other jobs. Some worked for rival publications, some were cab drivers or car mechanics, one owned a vineyard, another was a mortician.” Composing and printing the Times took “three times the number of people at five times the wages” of his other papers.

While appearing to negotiate with the unions, he secretly set up a new computer driven factory in the town of Wapping in the docklands of East London. The offer to the unions was, as it was designed to be, unacceptable. When they struck, he dismissed them all and pulled the wraps off of the new plant.

There were literal riots. Almost two thousand police were dispatched to protect the barbwire-fenced Wapping. Delivery vans loaded with scab produced newspapers would be launched at high speed at unexpected intervals to thwart protesters attempting to block them. It was a spectacle and it altered the world of British publishing forever. The newspaper the Independent emerged made up mostly of dismissed Times employees, but, Murdoch pointed out, they used the same electronic production methods he had pioneered. Nobody wanted to go back to the old ways.

It’s easy to point the finger and say that Murdoch was a greedy capitalist.[1] On the other hand, a newspaper, like any other business, has to make money. Would he have been less evil if he’d kept the Times going until a competitor emerged and drove them out of business? Would the world applaud him then? There was no solution to the problems at the Times without many losing their jobs, or losing to less expensive competitors. It was either the whole company or the printers.

In Prague, I met a man from Australia who had been in Wapping in 1986. He’d worked for one of the technology companies that supplied the new plant. He told me he crossed the picket lines to train “unskilled brick layers and gardeners” to become typesetters using the new-fangled computers. He recounted to me that he did his part for all involved: strikers, new workers, his company, and Murdoch, by getting himself “piss drunk” every day and doing as bad a job as he could. That way, he proudly told me, the change he’d been dragged into wouldn’t be his fault.

I smiled, thinking how well he would have fit in in Iowa.

[1] Of course he is!


© Copyright 2006, David Silverman (, Soft Skull Press (