Hermann Zapf (1918–2015): Digital typography

Hermann Zapf: November 8, 1918 – June 4, 2015
Hermann Zapf: November 8, 1918 – June 4, 2015

On Friday, June 12, Apple released its San Francisco system font for OSX, iOS and watchOS. Largely overlooked amid the media coverage of other Apple product announcements, the introduction of San Francisco was a noteworthy technical event.

San Francisco is a neo-grotesk, sans serif and Pan European typeface with characters in Latin as well as Cyrillic and Greek scripts. It is significant because it is the first font to be designed specifically for all of Apple’s display technologies. Important variations have been introduced into San Francisco to optimize its readability on Apple desktop, notebook, TV, mobile and watch devices.

It is also the first font designed by Apple in two decades. San Francisco extends Apple’s association with typographic innovation that began in the mid-1980s with desktop publishing. From a broader historical perspective, Apple’s new font confirms of the ideas developed more than fifty years ago by renowned calligrapher and type designer Hermann Zapf. Sadly, Zapf died at the age of 96 on June 4, 2015 just one week before Apple’s San Francisco announcement.

Hermann Zapf’s contributions to typography are extensive and astonishing. He designed more than 200 typefaces—the popular Palatino (1948), Optima (1952), Zapf Dingbats (1978) and Zapf Chancery (1979) among them—including fonts in Arabic, Pan-Nigerian, Sequoia and Cherokee. Meanwhile, Zapf’s exceptional calligraphic skills were such that he famously penned the Preamble of the Charter of the United Nations in four languages for the New York Pierpont Morgan Library in 1960.

Preamble of the charter of The United Nations
Zapf’s calligraphic skills were called upon for the republication of the Preamble of the UN Charter in 1960 for the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York City.

While he made many extraordinary creative accomplishments—far too many to list here—Hermann Zapf’s greatest legacy is the way he thought about type and its relationship to technology as a whole. Herman Zapf was among the first and perhaps the most important typographers to theorize about the need for new forms of type driven by computer and digital technologies.

Early life

Hermann Zapf was born in Nuremburg on November 8, 1918 during the turbulent times at the end of World War I. As he wrote later in life, “On the day I was born, a workers’ and soldiers’ council took political control of the city. Munich and Berlin were rocked by revolution. The war ended, and the Republic was declared in Berlin on 9 November 1918. The next day Kaiser Wilhelm fled to Holland.”

At school, Hermann took an interest in technical subjects. He spent time in the library reading scientific journals and at home, along with his older brother, experimenting with electronics. He also tried hand lettering and created his own alphabets.

Hermann left school in 1933 with the intention of becoming an engineer. However, economic crisis and upheaval in Germany—including the temporary political detention of his father in March 1933 at the prison camp in Dachau—prevented him from pursuing his plans.

Apprentice years

Barred from attending the Ohm Technical Institute in Nuremberg for political reasons, Hermann sought an apprenticeship in lithography. He was hired in February 1934 to a four-year apprenticeship as a photo retoucher by Karl Ulrich and Company.

In 1935, after reading books by Rudolf Koch and Edward Johnson on lettering and illuminating techniques, Hermann taught himself calligraphy. When management saw the quality of Hermann’s lettering, the Ulrich firm began to assign him work outside of his retouching apprenticeship.

Hermann refused to take the test at his father’s insistence on the grounds that the training had been interrupted by many unrelated tasks. He never received his journeyman’s certificate and left Nuremburg for Frankfurt to find work.

Zapf’s Gilgengart designed originally in 1938
Zapf’s Gilgengart designed originally in 1938

Zapf started his career in type design at the age of 20 after he was employed at the Fürsteneck Workshop House, a printing establishment run by Paul Koch, the son of Rudolf Koch. As he later explained, “It was through the print historian Gustav Mori that I first came into contact with the D. Stempel AG type foundry and Linotype GmbH in Frankfurt. It was for them that I designed my first printed type in 1938, a fraktur type called ‘Gilgengart’.”

War years

Hermann Zapf was conscripted in 1939 and called up to serve in the German army near the town of Pirmasens on the French border. After a few weeks, he developed heart trouble and was transferred from the hard labor of shovel work to the writing room where he composed camp reports and certificates.

When World War II started, Hermann was dismissed for health reasons. In April 1942 he was called up again, this time for the artillery. Hermann was quickly reassigned to the cartographic unit where he became well-known for his exceptional map drawing skills. He was the youngest cartographer in the German army through the end of the war.

An example of calligraphy from the sketchbook that Hermann Zapf kept during World War II.
An example of calligraphy from the sketchbook that Hermann Zapf kept during World War II.

Zapf was captured after the war by the French and held in a field hospital in Tübingen. As he recounted, “I was treated very well and they even let me keep my drawing instruments. They had a great deal of respect for me as an ‘artiste’ … Since I was in very poor health, the French sent me home just four weeks after the end of the war. I first went back to my parents in my home town of Nuremberg, which had suffered terrible damage.”

Post-war years

In the years following the war, Hermann taught and gave lessons in calligraphy in Nuremberg. In 1947, he returned to Frankfurt and took a position with the Stempel AG foundry with little qualification other than his sketch books from the war years.

From 1948 to 1950, while he worked at Stempel on typography designs for metal punch cutting, he developed a specialization in book design. Hermann also continued to teach calligraphy twice a week at the Arts and Crafts School in Offenbach.

Zapf’s Palatino (1948) and Optima (1952) fonts
Zapf’s Palatino (1948) and Optima (1952) fonts

It was during these years, that Zapf designed Palatino and Optima. Working closely with the punch cutter August Rosenberg, Hermann design Palatino and named it after the 16th century Italian master of calligraphy Giambattista Palatino. In the Palatino face, Zapf attempted to emulate the forms of the great humanist typographers of the Renaissance.

Optima, on the other hand, expressed more directly the genius of Zapf’s vision and foreshadowed his later contributions. Optima can be described as a hybrid serif-and-sans serif typeface because it blends features of both: serif-less thick and thin strokes with subtle swelling at the terminals that suggest serifs. Zapf designed Optima during a visit to Italy in 1950 when he examined inscriptions at the Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence. It is remarkably modern, yet clearly derived from the Roman monumental capital model.

By the time Optima was released commercially by Stempel AG in 1958, the industry had begun to move away from metal casting methods and into phototypesetting. As many of his most successful fonts were reworked for the new methods, Zapf recognized—perhaps before and more profoundly than most—that phototypesetting was a transitional technology on the path from analog to an entirely new digital typography.

Digital typography

To grasp the significance of Zapf’s work, it is important to understand that, although “cold” photo type was an advance over “hot” metal type, both are analog technologies, i.e. they require the transfer of “master” shapes from manually engraved punches or hand drawn outlines to final production type by way of molds or photomechanical processes.

Due to the inherent limitations of metal and photomechanical media, analog type masters often contain design compromises. Additionally, the reproduction from one master generation to the next has variations and inconsistencies connected with the craftsmanship of punch cutting or outline drawing.

With digital type, the character shapes exist as electronic files that “describe” fonts in mathematical vector outlines or in raster images plotted on an XY coordinate grid. With computer font data, typefaces have many nuances and features that could never be rendered in metal or photo type. Meanwhile, digital font masters can be copied precisely without any quality degradation from one generation to the next.

Hermann Zapf in 1960
Hermann Zapf in 1960

From the earliest days of computers, Hermann Zapf began advocating for the advancement of digital typography. He argued that type designers needed to take advantage of the possibilities opened up by the new technologies and needed to create types that reflected the age. Zapf also combined knowledge of the rules of good type design with a recognition that fonts needed to be created specifically for electronic displays (at that time CRT-based monitors and televisions).

In 1959, at the age of 41, Zapf wrote in an industry journal, “It is necessary to combine the purpose, the simplicity and the beauty of the types, created as an expression of contemporary industrial society, into one harmonious whole. We should not seek this expression in imitations of the Middle Ages or in revivals of nineteenth century material., as sometimes seems the trend; the question for us is satisfying tomorrow’s requirements and creating types that are a real expression of our time but also represent a logical continuation of the typographic tradition of the western world.”

Warm reception in the US

 Despite a very cold response in Germany—his ideas about computerized type were rejected as “unrealistic” by the Technical University in Darmstadt where he was a lecturer and by leading printing industry representatives—Hermann persevered. Beginning in the early 1960s, Zapf delivered a series of lectures in the US that were met with enthusiasm.

For example, a talk he delivered at Harvard University in October 1964 became so popular that it led to an offer for a professorship at the University of Texas in Austin. The governor even also made Hermann an “Honorary Citizen of the State of Texas.” In the end, Zapf turned down the opportunity due to family obligations in Germany.

Among his many digital accomplishments are the following:

  • Rudolf Hell
    Rudolf Hell

    When digital typography was born in 1964 with the Digiset system of Rudolf Hell, Hermann Zapf was involved. By the early 1970s, Zapf created some of the first fonts designed specifically for any digital system: Marconi, Edison, and Aurelia.

  • In 1976, Hermann was asked to head a professorship in typographic computer programming at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in Rochester, New York, the first of its kind in the world. Zapf taught at RIT for ten years and was able to develop his conceptions in collaboration with computer scientists and representatives of IBM and Xerox.
  • With Aaron Burns
    With Aaron Burns

    In 1977, Zapf partnered with graphic designers Herb Lubalin and Aaron Burns and founded Design Processing International, Inc. (DPI) in New York City. The firm developed software with menu-driven typesetting features that could be used by non-professionals. The DPI software was focused on automating hyphenation and justification as opposed to the style of type design.

  • In 1979, Hermann began a collaboration with Professor Donald Knuth of Stanford University to develop a font that was adaptable for mathematical formulae and symbols.
  • With Peter Karnow
    With Peter Karnow

    In the 1990s, Hermann Zapf continued to focus on the development of professional typesetting algorithms with his “hz -program” in collaboration with Peter Karow of the font company URW. Eventually the Zapf composition engine was incorporated by Adobe Systems into the InDesign desktop publishing software.

Zapf’s legacy

Hermann Zapf actively participated—into his 70s and 80s—in some of the most important developments in type technology of the past fifty years. This was no accident. He possessed both a deep knowledge of the techniques and forms of type history and a unique appreciation for the impact of information technologies on the creation and consumption of the written word.

In 1971, Zapf gave a lecture in Stockholm called “The Electronic Screen and the Book” where he said, “The problem of legibility is as old as the alphabet, for the identification of a letterform is the basis of its practical use. … To produce a clear, readable text that is pleasing to the eye and well arranged has been the primary goal of typography in all the past centuries. With a text made visible on a CRT screen, new factors for legibility are created.”

More than 40 years before the Apple design team set out to create a font that is legible on multiple computer screens, the typography visionary Hermann Zapf was theorizing about the very same questions.

John Crosfield (1915 – 2012): Printing press automation

John Crosfield
John Fothergill Crosfield: October 22, 1915 – March 25, 2012

Today’s digital and mobile wireless technologies are in a constant state of flux. As we pass the midpoint of 2015, the human computer interface is being once again transformed with haptic technology—tactile feedback from a device such as force or vibration.

If you have felt vibration in response to a touch function on your smartphone, then you have experienced haptics. What was until recently available only to virtual reality enthusiasts and gamers, is now a feature of every smartphone and tablet.

Technical evolution has been so fast that it is hard to believe smartphones have been around for less than eight years and the tablet is just a little over three years old. As we try to keep up with the pace of change, it is easy to miss the fact that the electronics revolution has been underway for more than a century and digital electronics represents less than half of that time period.

Electronic technology can be divided into two basic forms: analog and digital. Long before there were microprocessors and memory chips that exchange all information, data, code, signals, etc. in a series of zeroes and ones, there were analog electronics such as resistors, capacitors, inductors, diodes and transistors.

The difference between a clock with hour, minute and second hands rotating around the face and the numerals on an Light Emitting Diode (LED) clock display is a simple illustration of analogue vs digital technology.

John Crosfield’s contributions to printing and the graphic arts spanned both analogue and digital electronics. His analogue systems were developed in the late 1940s and became dominant in the industry throughout the 1950s. When the first computers were introduced in the 1960s, Crosfield pioneered digital electronics and became a major worldwide provider of equipment into the 1960s and mid-70s.

Crosfield’s youth

Young John Crosfield
Young John F. Crosfield

John Fothergill Crosfield was born into a well-off family. He was the third child and second son of prominent English Quakers. Born on October 22, 1915 in Hampstead, London—a community known for its intellectual, liberal, artistic, musical and literary associations—John had five siblings.

John’s father, Bertram Fothergill Crosfield, was managing director and co-proprietor of the News Chronical and The Star, both liberal daily newspapers in London. Bertram was also leader of several Hampstead organizations. John’s mother, Eleanor Cadbury, was the daughter of the famous chocolate maker and leading Quaker, George Cadbury. Eleanor was well-known independently of her father and was elected as a Liberal to Bucks County Council.

John showed an early interest in building things. As a boy, he was often busy in the family workshop making boats, steam engines and other mechanical devices. He once built a cannon and tested it on the garage door. The projectile went through the door and damaged his father’s Daimler. He was fond of trains and, with the assistance of a childhood friend, built an O gauge model railroad on the property of his school grounds.

At age 13 John was enrolled in Leighton Park School, a Quaker establishment. He enjoyed studying physics and math and decided he wanted to pursue engineering at college. Following in his father’s footsteps, John enrolled at Trinity College Cambridge. He designed and built gliders and other flying machinery such as a winch launcher in his spare time. Although he had many hobbies, John was an exceptional student and put most of his time into his studies.

John graduated from Cambridge in 1936 and went to Munich, Germany to improve his language skills. He came into contact with anti-Semitism and Nazi propaganda and was horrified by Hitler’s methods. Upon his return to England, John’s accounts of the treatment of political prisoners in Germany were met with disbelief.

World War II

John Crosfield was a member of a generation of engineers whose formative experiences were made in World War II. Much of the technology advancements that were deployed throughout industry in the post war period originated in the struggle by the warring countries for military supremacy.

After he left Cambridge, Crosfield took a student-apprentice engineering position with British Thomson-Hudson (BTH), a heavy industry firm based in Warwickshire. BTH was founded as a subsidiary of the US-based General Electric Company (GE) and specialized in steam turbines. In 1938, he left BTH and went to work at the Stockholm facility of ASEA, a Swedish version of BTH and GE. When the war began in 1939, John made his way back to England and planned to join the Navy.

Crosfield used some connections at ASEA to get an assignment by the Admiralty to the Mine Design Department. It was here that Crosfield’s electronic genius would begin to be expressed. He worked on a magnetic mine project that could detect German boats near British harbors.

Crosfield also designed and built a prototype of an acoustic mine that could pick up on the sound of the propeller of wooden German E-boats. The acoustic mine became a success with 200 being deployed in the Baltic Sea and sinking 47 enemy vessels. Crosfield and his colleagues later worked on the development of both acoustic and subsonic mines. He got involved in the production process and in 1944 Crosfield’s inventions proved extremely effective in major battles at the Straits of Dover and the Western Approaches.

Crosfield Electronics Limited & the Autotron

1949 advertisement for the Crosfield Autotron, the first automated electronic register control system
1949 advertisement for the Crosfield Autotron, the first automated electronic register control system

After the war, John Crosfield decided—after having learned from his experience at ASEA that some of the projects that he had worked on would never be funded—to start his own business. In 1947, he set up a lab in Hampstead and began working on new projects. He later recalled that in 1945, while he was in charge of electronics research for the Admiralty, he was approached by a printing industry representative about the problem of color registration on high speed rotogravure magazine presses. There was a need for an automated system to align all the process colors in the printed page to improve quality and reduce press waste.

With about £2,000 of his own money and another £2,500 borrowed from family members, Crosfield set out to design an electronic and automated registration system for color printing. After 18 months of hard work, the “Autotron” was tested as a prototype on the production of Women’s Weekly at Amalgamated Press in London. Prior to the Autotron, a magazine production run would often waste 25-30% of the impressions using manual controls. Crosfield’s automatic register system brought the waste figures down to 4-5%.

The Autotron consisted of a scanning heads mounted on each printing unit and a control cubicle that was located away from the press. The scanning heads picked up “register marks”—unobtrusive symbols on the printed page that were hidden from view—to regulate the movement of the printed image from unit to unit with an accuracy of one thousandth (1/1000) of an inch.

Word about the Autotron travelled quickly in the printing industry and Crosfield was soon taking prepaid orders from companies in Britain. An opportunity to show the system at the British Industries Fair in 1949 made Autotron an international phenomenon and orders were quickly being placed from printers in countries around the world.

Pressroom automation

The success of the Autotron encouraged John Crosfield to invest in further research in pressroom automation for gravure magazine printing and other presses such as offset newspaper and packaging print.

In Recollections of Crosfield Electronics, 1947 to 1975, John Crosfield wrote, “My philosophy was to concentrate our research on new electronic aids for the printing industry, in order to maximize the use of our electronic ‘know how’ on the one hand and our sales contacts in the printing industry on the other. Eventually we had the greatest range of electronic equipment for the printing industry of any company in the world.”

In the 1950s, Crosfield developed a suite of successful automation products for the industry:

  • Secatron: an optical system for packaging printers that kept images in the right position on the cardboard so they would look right on the finished carton.
  • Webatron: a system similar to Autotron for high speed presses that regulated the movement of paper through the press for delivery to folders and sheeters.
  • Trakatron: a system for regulating print on web-fed cellophane and wax paper presses.
  • Idotron: a system for measuring ink density on a web press to keep color reproduction consistent during press runs.
  • Viscomex: an ink viscosity control system that added solvents to the ink automatically as needed as a result of evaporation.
  • Flying Paster: an automatic splicing mechanism that enabled production to go from one roll of paper to the other without slowing down or stopping the press.
Crosfield Idotron measured and adjusted ink density inline on a high speed rotogravure press
Crosfield Idotron measured and adjusted ink density inline on a high speed rotogravure press

Many of these systems relied upon photo-electric cells to detect movement of paper or printed images on the paper. Crosfield’s expertise in the area of optical sensors lead him to several other important breakthroughs in the composition and preparatory stages of print production. These developments took place in an environment of intense global competition with companies in Europe, the US and Middle East.

Phototypesetting and color scanning

The Crosfield Lumitype 450 was the first phototypesetting system designed and built in Europe. It was licensed to Crosfield by the US based Photon.
The Crosfield Lumitype 450 was the first phototypesetting system designed and built in Europe. It was licensed to Crosfield by the US based Photon.

By the 1960s, the printing industry had been moving rapidly into offset lithography. A major factor in this regard was the displacement of hot metal typesetting with cold type, i.e. phototypesetting systems. While Crosfield was not the inventor of the first phototypesetter, his company was a designer and builder of the Lumitype 540 under patents from the original inventors at Photon in the US. This relationship would continue through the development of the high speed Photon 713 in 1965, which was the first computer controlled phototypesetting system.

Among the greatest successes of Crosfield Electronics, Ltd. was its color scanning systems. The Crosfield Scanatron—which was developed in 1958—was the first scanning technology that could make color corrections and eliminate the time-consuming work of retouchers.

The Crosfield Magnascan was the first color scanning device that could retouch color electronically.
The Crosfield Magnascan was the first color scanning device that could retouch color electronically.

Crosfield continued with advancements in color scanning throughout the 1960s. The Magnascan was introduced in 1969 and it was capable of scanning a color transparency. It also had the software capability to adjust the size, form, color and hue such that the printed image was of the finest quality anywhere.

While the Magnascan was an international success, it was developed at the same time as Rudolf Hell’s Chromograph. Recognizing that a battle over who invented and patented the drum scanner first, the two men signed an agreement giving cross licenses for a modest royalty. Crosfield and Hell remained good friends from that point forward.

Impact of desktop computing

John Crosfield receiving the gold medal of the Institute of Printing in 1973
John Crosfield receiving the gold medal of the Institute of Printing in 1973

In addition to accomplishments in the graphic arts, Crosfield Electronics Limited (CEL). also developed computerized business systems and—leveraging the expertise in optical devices—invented a very successful automated bank note sorting and processing technology.

While the company was very successful in the printing market, an attempt to take CEL public in 1974 was made during a collapse of the stock exchange and Crosfield ended up selling his business to De La Rue. The color scanning segment of his business—the most profitable aspect of CEL—was sold by De La Rue in 1989 to a joint venture of Fuji and DuPont called Fujifilm Electronics Imaging.

With the introduction of the desktop PC—and especially the desktop publishing system associated with the Apple Macintosh computer in 1985 and shortly thereafter desktop flatbed scanners—Crosfield’s era graphic arts electronics had come to a close.

John Crosfield received many accolades for his contributions to the printing industry over nearly five decades, including four United Kingdom Queen’s Awards and the gold medal of the Institute of Printing in 1973. He remained a board member of De La Rue until 1985 and thereafter was Honorary President of CEL. A very modest, personable and generous man, John Crosfield died on March 25, 2012 at his home in Hampstead at age 96.

Linn Boyd Benton: 1844 – 1932

inland-printer-vol-089-n05-1932-08-linn-boyd-benton-obituary.pdf
Linn Boyd Benton

Linn Boyd Benton is not a widely known figure in the history of printing. This is an odd fact given that he is responsible for one of the most important technical achievements of the late nineteenth century: the invention of the pantographic engraver of type punches. Without Benton’s contribution, the completion of the industrialization of the printing process—and the success of Mergenthaler’s Linotype casting machine—would not have been possible.

Linn Boyd Benton was born on May 13, 1844 in Little Falls, New York, a town about 75 miles east of Syracuse. His father, Charles Swan Benton, was a lawyer and the founder-editor of the Mohawk Courier & Little Falls Gazette. In 1840, the elder Benton was elected as US Representative of the 17th District of New York State.

It has been said that Linn Boyd was forced to rely upon himself at an early age because his mother, Emeline Fuller of Little Falls, died when he was just three years old. That his father moved the family frequently also contributed to Linn Boyd’s character development.

After Charles remarried, he relocated the family to Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he became part owner and editor of the Milwaukee Daily News. At age eleven, Linn Boyd had his first experience with typography in the composing room of his father’s newspaper.

Boyd—as he was called—attended Galesville College, in Galesville, Wisconsin and studied advanced subjects for two years with a private tutor in La Crosse, Wisconsin. He developed his mechanical aptitude while working summer jobs as a tombstone cutter and as a watch repairman for a jeweler in La Crosse.

At 22 years old, Boyd was hired by a friend of his father’s as a bookkeeper for a Milwaukee type foundry. When the company went bankrupt during the financial panic of 1873, Boyd bought the Northwestern Type Foundry along with a partner and ran the manufacturing operations of the business. This was the beginning of Linn Boyd Benton’s long career in typography.

After several name and partnership changes, Boyd remained operations director of Benton, Waldo & Company and, by the early 1880s, the firm was manufacturing and selling metal type in the highly competitive industry. It was during this time that Benton began developing his skills as an inventor and typographic innovator.

Self-spacing type

By the 1880s, the problem of standardized type size measurement had become the scourge of the printing industry. Most printing establishments were forced to maintain relationships with a single type foundry due to the fact that type sizes, widths, base alignment and even metal alloy composition were not common.

With the industrial development of printing machinery long established—the launching of daily newspapers and installation of large steam-powered rotary web presses taking place everywhere—the lack of advanced methods of type specification, manufacture and composition were holding the industry back.

benton-waldo-specimen-booklet-1886-sos-0600dpijpg.pdf
Cover of Benton’s Self Spacing Type Specimen Book

Since the early 1700s efforts had been mounted in Europe and America to come up with a standard for measuring type. The “pica and point” system finally emerged after a long conflict over proprietary interests. On September 17, 1886 the American System of Interchangeable Type Bodies was formally adopted at a meeting of the United States Type Founder’s Association in Niagara, New York.

Within this environment, Linn Boyd Benton began working on methods that would change the way type was specified and handled. The problem facing compositors was that justifying a line of type required the manual arrangement of individual characters and spacers with a “trial and error” working method. According to Benton and others, this antiquated process unnecessarily lengthened composition time and there had to be a means of automating it.

The measuring system of “12 points to a pica and 6 picas to an inch” that we use today was initially developed as a vertical system of type height. Benton’s innovation was that the width should also be measured such that the typography followed “the point system both ways.” In 1883, Benton received US Patent 290,201 for Self Spacing Type that, according to the promotional literature, could “increase composition speeds by 25%.”

The Benton, Waldo & Company’s Self Spacing Type styles were designed primarily for the newspaper industry where compositor speed was the most important issue. For some typographers, the horizontal distortion of characters and spaces required to make Benton’s system work meant that the visual appearance of the type was unacceptable; they argued it was hard to read.

Nonetheless, Benton’s work on self-spacing type was a breakthrough and the production and marketing of its typefaces brought him straight into a much more historically significant technological advancement for the industry.

Benton’s pantographic punch cutting machine

To grasp the significance of Benton’s invention of the pantographic engraver, it is important to understand the components and process of metal typesetting. Gutenberg’s accomplishment was the invention of the hand-held mold for typecasting. It created the mass production of individual metal characters that could be assembled into lines and pages of type, effectively displacing the handwriting by scribes.

There are two preliminary steps required in the production of the type mold into which the molten metal is poured: the punch and the matrix. The punch is a steel relief form of the letter that is driven by a hammer into a piece of copper that creates the cavity of the matrix. The matrix is then placed into the mold assembly where hot metal is poured forming the finished piece of type that will be inked and printed upon.

Punch, matrix and finished type character
Punch, matrix and finished type character

Prior to Benton, punch cutting was a manual process that required a highly skilled craftsman to design and engrave the characters into a tapered piece of steel that was two to three inches long. Every character of every size had to be punch cut; these were the “masters” of the font from which many matrices could be produced. If a punch was damaged or broken, it would have to be remade by hand and it was likely that there would be slight differences from the one to the other.

Punch cutting was clearly the most difficult job in the production of type. It was not uncommon for a skilled punch cutter to take an entire day to make one punch; each punch required the continuous use of a magnifying glass, significant manual dexterity and an esthetic sensibility.

Benton’s Self Spacing Type required the cutting of more than 3,000 punches and skilled punch cutters were in short supply. In an effort to solve this problem, Linn Boyd Benton employed the pantograph—a mechanical device that uses parallelograms to trace an image on one surface and reproduce that image precisely on another surface—in the type production process.

Although Benton was not the first person to employ the pantographic principle in type making, he was the first to obtain a patent for the machine that would ultimately be used for cutting steel punches. The device went through several iterations and it has been established that the first machine did not cut punches but actually was used to engrave the metal letters themselves. However, Benton’s third pantographic engraver that was granted US Patent 332,990 was designed specifically for punch cutting.

Patent for Benton’s pantographic punch cutting machine
Patent for Benton’s pantographic punch cutting machine

Coincidentally, while Benton was solving problems with self-spacing type manufacturing, Ottmar Mergenthaler was developing a solution for the mechanical composition of type, one complete line at a time. With the investment of powerful newspaper publishing interests behind him, Mergenthaler invented the Linotype machine in 1886 and by 1888 there were hundreds of these machines on order.

Mergenthaler’s Linotype breakthrough begged for a method of mass matrix production on a scale that had never before existed. As explained by Benton’s publicist Henry Lewis Bullen, “Here was a machine; but no adequate means of supplying it with matrices had been devised. The rapid production of matrices required the rapid production of punches. … In 1890 the Linotype company had six or seven punch cutters in its employ and these could do no more than keep up supply of matrices for about two hundred machines. Not in all the world could enough steel punch cutters be found to furnish an adequate supply of matrices, without which the machines were as useless and unsalable as a gun where powder is unprocurable.”

By chance, Benton’s partner R.V. Waldo was on a self-spacing type sales visit at New York Tribune where Mergenthaler’s machine was pioneered. Once the topic of Benton’s pantograph came up between Waldo and Mergenthaler’s representatives it was just a matter of time before the Linotype matrix production dilemma would be solved. On February 13, 1889, the first Benton punch-cutting machine was leased to the Mergenthaler Printing Company.

Thus, the combined accomplishments of Benton and Mergenthaler terminated the era of hand crafted type production and enabled this most important aspect of print technology to completely enter the industrial age.

Later years

Linn Boyd Benton would go on to make many other technical contributions to the printing and typographic industries: combination fractions (1895), a type dressing machine (1901), an automatic type-caster (1907), and a lining device for engraving matrices of shaded letters (1913). Benton also played an important role with Theodore Lowe De Vinne in the design of the Century Roman typeface, an innovation in type design at the beginning of the twentieth century.

In 1892, Benton, Waldo & Company merged with 23 other type houses and formed the American Type Founders Company with headquarters in Elizabeth, NJ. At the time it represented 85% of all type manufactured in the US and would dominate the industry into the 1940s.

Morris Fuller Benton, Linn Boyd’s only son who was born in Milwaukee in 1872, would join the ATF organization at age 24 after graduating from Cornell with an engineering degree. Morris would go on to be a major contributor to the type business and a force of his own in printing history completing 221 typeface designs—including Cheltenham, Hobo, Broadway and Franklin Gothic—during his career.

Linn Boyd Benton retired from ATF on July 1, 1932 and died two weeks later on July 15, 1932. Along with recognition of his many accomplishments, the company’s board of directors described Benton in a statement the following October: “As a Man Mr. Benton endeared himself to us by his modesty, his delightful humor and his probity in all matters, intellectual and material.”