Reverting to type

Computers may have seen the demise of the hot-metal press, but one woman and her remarkable archive are keeping traditional printing values alive, reports Thomas Figg
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AFTER THE wheel, the invention of printing from movable type some 500 years ago is the innovation which has been most central to human progress. Within 50 years we went from a world where books had to be copied out by hand to one in which they could be printed relatively easily, as well as cheaply.

It was this bloodless revolution that ushered in the modern world - it is no coincidence that historians date the start of the modern period from about this time. The pioneers, Gutenberg in Germany and Caxton in England, are justly famous. Despite being almost as important, the invention of Monotype four centuries later has failed to achieve the same place in the history books.

Before Monotype, each letter had to be selected from a type case and arranged individually by hand in a "composing stick". The advent of Monotype allowed type to be set automatically - text was tapped out on a keyboard run by compressed air, which produced a punched tape, that could be "read" by an automatic hot-metal casting machine. From there the caster spewed out letter after letter - the "26 soldiers of lead" - ready to print from its reversed surface. It was this invention that made possible the true mass production of print, fuelling the century's boom in literacy. The sheer quantity of printed matter increased exponentially, and behind it was the Monotype Corporation, a British company that developed the Monotype process patented in 1897. From its factory in Surrey, the company sent machinery to printers all over the globe.

In the late 1970s, after 80 years as the dominant global technology, Monotype hot-metal technology finally began to bite the dust. The Monotype Corporation itself sowed the seeds of the demise of hot-metal by developing photo-typesetting (Monophoto) in the 1960s and laser composition in the 70s. In just a few years, in the western world, Monotype machinery was consigned to skips as the computer swept through the trade.

Susan Shaw witnessed this transition and it was her passion for letterpress and Monotype, nurtured by 30 years as a publisher and printer, that led her to the idea of the Type Museum. Representing every written language in the world, the National Museum of Type and Communication will open its exhibition area to the public on 2 December, in conjunction with the Friends of Shakespeare's Globe.

Physically, the new museum is easy to pin down, comprising a group of characterful 19th-century industrial buildings in a cul-de-sac in Stockwell, south London. This atmospheric site was a vetinary hospital for horses from 1897 until the 1940s, and cobbles still line the first floor. Conceptually, however, the museum is much more complex to pin down. What it is not, Susan Shaw asserts emphatically, is a museum of printing history - although it is a breathtaking source of research. It forms rather a link between the past and the future. "What we are doing here," she says, "is not a dry display of old machines, but a vibrant working place where students can learn how the materials and skills of the past can be put to good use for the future."

Susan Shaw began her crusade by purchasing diecases in the 1980s, the Monotype matrices which, when inserted into the hot-metal casting machine - itself driven by a punch tape like a pianola roll - produces type. To this she added three casting machines and two keyboards, and in a small factory at the bottom of her garden began doing high- quality typesetting on a commercial basis. By the mid-80s, her collection of typefaces was extensive; she was buying up diecases from book printing houses as they went over to computer setting or went out of business.

By 1992, aided by powerful publisher friends, she set up a trust to purchase and bring to the newly acquired Museum buildings in Stockwell the Monotype Corporation's hot- metal business and archive of 8 million artefacts. Five skilled engineers who had served their apprenticeships at the factory came too. This plant is still in operation at the museum, producing Monotype equipment for countries such as India, where Monotype is still a force in governmental printing.

As well as the Monotype artefacts, the museum houses two other great type creation businesses - Stephenson Blake, typefounders in Sheffield since 1819, with a priceless collection of artefacts from the early 16th century and Robert DeLittle, woodletter manufacturer in York since 1888.

Susan is fascinated by letterforms, and dismayed by the way that we take them for granted. "It only takes 10 minutes to get people to start really looking at different letterforms and then they never look back. It's like riding a bicycle." I ask to be let in on the secret. She opens A Medieval Pageant, a large, gorgeous book she printed at the museum for the Duke of Bucchleuch for presentation to the Roxburghe Club (a collection of aristocrats and wealthy bibliophiles who produce fine books in small editions, and a special client of the museum's printing arm).

"Look at this," she says. "This is skilful typesetting. See how it invites you to read it." She turns the pages, "Look, even this, a table, is beautiful. And this index." I had to admit that even the index was beautiful. And I could, to my surprise, see why. Everything was just, well, right. I'm converted - since then I look at every page I read with a critical eye, and find very few are as right as those that Susan Shaw showed me that day. It's like understanding your first opera, or eating your first really good meal or drinking fine malt for the first time.

She takes me through the various stages of the Monotype manufacturing process, from the foot-high pattern drawings, through the copper patterns, to the punches and the striking of the matrix. Her four staff who, she says, don't make mistakes because they don't know how, demonstrate each aspect of the process for me. Watching, listening, and smelling, almost tasting the machines as they grunt and whirr is an exhilarating and sensual experience - industrial archaeology at its best.

However, historical technology is just the beginning of what the Type Museum is about, says Susan Shaw. "We have rescued our national printing and typographic heritage so that a generation raised on the computer can learn how these rich and varied materials can provide inspiration for the effective communications of the future. Most of the standard textfaces on modern computer systems derive from the Monotype archive, and professional type- setting techniques are no longer generally taught or practised. At the museum we try to use computer typesetting fonts to their best possible advantage and to encourage students to do the same."

Shaw has big plans for education and general proselytising about the importance of letterforms in all our lives. The museum will not be a static institution, chained to the past, but an active participant in the communications industry.

The Type Museum is now applying to the Lottery for funding to revamp the buildings and add a lecture theatre. "We've been wonderfully helped by the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Science Museum in buying our collections, but we've never had money for running costs. We've always done things on the shoestring of a shoestring."

! The Type Museum opens on 2 December and can be contacted at PO Box 15018, London SW9 0ZU