Colin Barber

Pioneer of computer typesetting

Colin Richard Barber, mathematician and computer engineer: born Hull 24 June 1934; married first 1955 Ruth Agnes (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), secondly Victoria Litzinger (died 1993; one son); died Peel, Isle of Man 16 September 2006.

Fifty years ago, letterpress printing was the normal way by which all texts - books, newspapers or any other kind of print - could be put together and disseminated. The transition to electronic communication was complicated and, at the outset, very difficult, and came about not least because of Colin Barber's vision, technical skill and courage.

He was born in 1934 in Hull, where his father was a brass-founder, and went to school at Southcoates Lane; but the Second World War made the east coast dangerous and he was evacuated to Bardsey, near Leeds, returning to Hull and Hull Technical College. His ability in mathematics and physics was already evident.

Opposed as he was to violence in any form, his National Service was spent in the Merchant Navy. He got his first job as a research physicist at Plessey. Crossing the Atlantic, he worked as a stress analyst at Avro Aircraft (Canada), and then moved to Philadelphia as a senior research engineer at the SKF laboratory, going on to become project leader in physical science with RCA. He was always impatient; once a job was done, he wanted to get on to the next.

By this time the potential of computers for newspaper publication was obvious, particularly for regional groups with multiple titles, transmitted by teletypesetting over telephone lines. In 1963 Perry Publications in Florida put in the new Photon 513 photo-typesetter at the Miami Herald, hiring Barber as manager of computer typesetting applications. From this he was persuaded by John Seybold, another pioneer, to join the new Rocappi (Research on Computer Applications to the Printing and Publishing Industries) Inc, as director of research.

Although it was not until the late 1960s, when the price of lead multiplied overnight, that letterpress printing became obsolescent, British printers were looking anxiously to the future, and also nervously over their shoulders at predatory figures in the newspaper jungle. Hazel, Watson and Viney at Aylesbury had recently merged with Sun Engraving, Watford, whose gravure plant was a target for the then new colour supplements.

In autumn 1963 Hazel Sun was investigating the new developments in typesetting in the United States, but was itself threatened by takeover by the News of the World. Geoffrey Crowther was in the midst of these negotiations, out of which the British Printing Corporation emerged, uniting Hazel Sun and Purnells, in 1964. Crowther enlisted the support of Max Rayne, and he in turn his old service friend Rowley Atterbury of the Westerham Press, who stressed the importance of computerised data processing for the future. Atterbury was in the audience when Barber came back in 1964 to speak at a conference at London University; he took him out to lunch and persuaded him to return to Britain.

At Rocappi Barber had met Vicky Litzinger, an exceptionally able mathematician, and it was as a couple that they came to establish Rocappi Ltd as an offshoot of the American company, based at the Westerham Press. Potential union opposition was deflected by an agreement that NGA members were trained by Rocappi instructors, who in turn received a union card. John Robbins, an ex-Hazel compositor, was a trainee who became the linchpin of Rocappi, Litzinger was the chief instructor, and her input on subsequent technical developments was considerable. BPC backed this experimental work.

An exhibition catalogue for the Goldsmiths' Company in 1965 was the first publication. Standards of Monotype composition at the Westerham Press were high, but Rocappi's computer-generated tape made it possible to output three columns of type simultaneously without intervention of human hand (the caster operator crossed himself as he saw them emerge). The first computer-set bible, specially keyboarded, was printed by William Collins at Glasgow for the British and Foreign Bible Society, and the first novel was Margaret Drabble's The Millstone, both in 1965. In 1966, The British Imperial Calendar and Civil Service List was the first to have electronically generated indexes.

This last was done for HMSO, an early customer. For Warburg's, Barber wrote a self-generating program without keyboarding for their "Bond Tables", the ultimate in simplicity. The Medical Directory, Careers Research and Advice and Directory of Further Education (numerically sorted at seven levels) followed.

Then calamity struck; the financial pipeline from BPC to Westerham was abruptly cut towards the end of 1966, leaving Atterbury alone to support a staff by now grown to 30. "Rocappi Ltd" lingered on with BPC, while the new firm, C.R. Barber & Partners (Barber, Litzinger and John Robbins), set out anew.

Their first and most urgent need was computer time. Spare capacity by night on the IBM 360 at the Blue Star Garage, Highgate, provided it. An equally lucky deal got them the only Harris Intertype Phototronic, then the fastest typesetter in the world outside the US. It was just in time, for the financial world provided a vast new market, including updating the Financial Times stock valuations and Dun and Bradstreet's company listings.

Dun and Bradstreet made (and nearly broke) the firm. Previously, their annual had taken a year to print, 11 months spent adjusting the text and one printing it. Computerised data made updating instantaneous; Barber's main task was to teach Dun and Bradstreet staff to do it themselves. No longer dependent, they gave Barber notice, only to find that they still needed his computing facilities, for which they provided a five-year contract.

Blue Star was abandoned, and, after buying time elsewhere, Barber and his partners settled in a small building at Wrotham. A plaque still there records its opening on 6 December 1974 by Victoria and Colin Barber (he and Litzinger were now married), John Robbins and their chairman, Wilfred Harvey, Crowther's nemesis at BPC. Dun and Bradstreet was housed in a windowless ex-air-raid shelter near by. A large new business came in adding postcodes to telephone directories for the GPO.

Ironically, the firm's last work was to write typesetting programs for the first IBM PCs, in the long term commercial suicide, since the PC put computer typesetting in the hands of every PC-owner. The partners ultimately sold the still lucrative business to Burrup Matheson, the City printers, in 1986. The Barbers retired to Knocksharry House (former home of Richard Adams) on the Isle of Man.

Barber's prophetic determination made him an irresistible advocate. He had no tact, no gift for charming customers, and could be quite violent - in speech only - with those who failed to see what he saw. ("You can't say that, Colin," Vicky would say.) But a lot of people in publishing and the financial world owe their livelihood - some of them a fortune - to him.

Nicolas Barker