Louis Moyroud: 1914 – 2010

WonderfulWorldofInsectsIt is likely you have not read the 1953 edition of “The Wonderful World of Insects” by Albro Tilton Gaul. That’s OK. To be honest, I haven’t read it either. However, I do have a copy and I know that it is a very important book … not so much because it is about insects. “The Wonderful World of Insects” is important because it is the first book ever produced with phototypesetting.

Prior to 1953, almost everything being printed used the casting method known as “hot type.” The mechanized production of molten metal type characters was first created by Gutenberg in the 1440s and his technique thrived for over 400 years. The system was revolutionized by Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine in the 1880s.

Beginning in the 1940s, with the invention of “cold type” by Louis Moyroud and his fellow inventor Rene Higonnet, the typographic process was again being revolutionized. Moyroud and Higonnet’s breakthrough was significant because type creation went from being a mechanical to an electronic process. But more fundamentally, the two French engineers had initiated technologies that would later lead to a transformation of the graphic arts from analog to digital technology. This evolution is not complete. It continues developing to this day.

Louis Marius Moyroud was born on February 16, 1914 in Moirains, Isère, France and was the only child of Marius and Ann Marie Vial Moyroud. Louis never knew his father, who died when he was an infant. His mother worked in a textile factory.

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Higonnet and Moyroud with one of their devices at MIT in the 1960s.

As a student, Louis was outstanding. He received government support to study engineering at one of the best institutions in France, École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts et Métiers and he graduated in from there in 1936. Upon graduation, he served in the French army as a second lieutenant and was promoted to first lieutenant in 1939.

Louis’s work as an inventor began after 1941, when a subsidiary of ITT Corporation in Lyon called LMT Laboratories hired him. International Telephone and Telegraph was by this time a global corporation that owned both telephone services infrastructure and manufacturing operations that produced telephone equipment.

In the early 1940s, Louis was working with Rene Alphonse Higonnet when they observed the traditional process of hot metal typesetting in a French printing plant. Based upon some scientific breakthroughs associated with light, optics and photography, Moyroud and Higgonet believed that an alternative to the casting of molten metal typesetting could be developed.

As with many breakthrough technologies, there were many people trying to displace hot metal typesetting with a more advanced system. Moyroud and Higonnet were the first to build a functioning solution that was made into a commercial product. Much of the pressure to find a viable photographic typesetting system was being driven by the replacement of the letterpress printing method by offset lithography.

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Louis Moyroud in 1985.

According to Louis’s son Patrick, “My dad always said they thought it was insane [the Linotype process].  They saw the possibility of making the process electronic, replacing the metal with photography. So they started cobbling together typewriters, electronic relays, a photographic disc.”

Moyroud and Higonnet worked throughout the war years on their project and first demonstrated their invention in September 1946 in Lyon. Their first functioning photocomposing machine used a typewriter, a strobe light and a series of lenses to project characters from a spinning disk onto photographic paper. The typeset copy could then be used to make printing plates. Moyroud and Higonnet called their machine the Lumitype.

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The machine created in 1946 by Moyroud and Higonnet. They called it Lumitype.

With the post-World War II technology revolution underway, Louis and Rene moved to the United States to pursue the commercialization of their concept. They approached Vannevar Bush, president of MIT and President Roosevelt’s top technology adviser, with their prototype. Bush put them in touch with William Garth, President of Lithomat Corporation, a Cambridge, MA manufacturer of presensitized offset duplicator plates.

Garth was convinced that a successful phototypesetting system would stimulate the growth and expansion of offset printing and drive sales of his Lithomat plates. He formed the Graphic Arts Research Foundation to raise financial resources for the development and marketing of Moyroud and Higonnet’s invention. Encouraged by the possibility of dramatic cost reductions in the print production process, Garth attracted support from major newspaper publishers, book printers and traditional typesetting services.

MITBookAfter several years of development work, significant support for the project came in. Garth spent over $1 million to create a prototype phototypesetter. He also changed the name of his firm to Photon, Inc. The prototype device was called Petunia and it was used to set the type of the “Wonderful World of Insects” in 1953. In 1957, Moyroud and Higonnet were granted a patent for their invention and tens of thousands of phototypesetting machines were sold.

For more than 30 years, this method of producing type was dominant for printing, publishing and advertising copy. Mechanical artwork was produced by “paste up” artists around the world for reproduction on offset lithographic printing presses. Hot metal type and letterpress printing rapidly receded into the background, although some Linotype-generation systems remained in use for specialty work and that continues today.

In 1985 (two years after the death of Higonnet), Louis Moyroud and Rene Higonnet were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Alexandria, Va. Ironically, 1985 is also the year of the advent of desktop publishing, a technology that would— within a few years—completely displace phototypesetting as a method of producing type for print. This fact shows that phototypesetting was a transitory development along the path of the digital transformation of the graphic arts.

Louis Moyroud continued his work on phototypesetting systems into the 1980s and his career as an inventor extended beyond the displacement of his most important contribution. He retired to Delray Beach, Florida where he later died in June 2010 at the age of 96.

Frank Romano, who worked with Moyroud as the advertising manager of Photon in 1969, wrote the following tribute to Louis, “He had a wonderful sense of humor and an unassuming demeanor. He had collected most of the early phototypesetters and donated them to the Museum of Printing in North Andover. Petunia is on display.

“John Crosfield, Rudolf Hell, Benny Landa, and Dan Gelbart are among the inventors who moved the printing industry to new levels, but the era of automation began with Louis and Rene. Louis is now gone and revolution he began is now ended. But other revolutions continue.”

Ottmar Mergenthaler: 1854 – 1899

Ottmar Mergenthaler, the inventor of the Linotype machine, was born on May 11, 1854. While it may be difficult to appreciate in our era of digital innovation, Mergenthaler’s invention was a momentous achievement that transformed our industry 125 years ago.

Called the “eighth wonder of the world” by Thomas Edison, Mergenthaler’s machine automated and integrated the casting and assembly of type forms; the invention completed the advancement of printing from handcraft to industrial manufacturing.

In the early 19th century, industrial printing came into shape as iron replaced wood in press construction. Cylinders were developed and, with steam power, the rotary press was invented. Meanwhile, the 1800s saw papermaking industrialize and bookbinding convert from handiwork to mass production.

The industrial revolution increased the volume of printing and its output per hour. However, in contrast, there was one critical step that remained primitive, costly and in need of revolutionary change: typesetting.

For centuries, type composition methods remained static. Standing in front of the type case, the compositor manually picked up individually cast metal characters and placed them in sequence—including justification—onto an eight-inch composing stick. Manual typesetting required The New York Times, for example, to maintain a staff 100 compositors … to produce eight-page weekday editions and a twelve-pager on Sundays!

The search to replace the old process—which remained unchanged since Gutenberg’s time—spanned a century and went through more than 100 unsuccessful inventions. As one author wrote, “The story of the many inventors who failed, died broke or took to drink … only serves to dramatize this persistent urge of the human spirit” to leap over an important technological hurdle.

With expectations of a solution on the horizon, investors put up an estimated $10 million between 1865 and 1885 for various schemes. Among them was Mark Twain who sank $190,000 ($7 million in today’s money) into a failed contraption that had 18,000 moving parts.

It took the genius, clarity of vision and persistence of a young German emigrant to America to solve the riddle of mechanical typesetting. Arriving in Baltimore at the age of 18, Ottmar Mergenthaler was looking for an opportunity to pursue his interest in engineering.

In 1876, the young Mergenthaler—who was trained as a watchmaker— was asked to review the apparatus of another inventor. He said, “Even though I know almost nothing about printing, I have little faith that this is the machine to revolutionize an industry.” And with that, he embarked upon the project of his life. After ten years of work and at age 32, Mergenthaler demonstrated his machine publicly for the first time in the offices of The New York Tribune on July 3, 1886.

With his unique arrangement of keyboard, gears, wheels, belts, pulleys, tubes, cables, hoses, trays etc., Mergenthaler integrated a mind-boggling array of functions. At the core of his invention were: 1.) the casting of individual type forms from hot metal; 2.) the assembly of the characters into lines-of-type and; 3.) everything was done by a single operator. You can watch a Model 8 Linotype machine in action by visiting this YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nf0hDWOrnWA

By 1895, there were 3,000 machines in use by publishers and printers worldwide. The fast, low cost typesetting led to an expansion of the printed word. In the US, newspapers increased pages, magazines grew in size and frequency, books were printed in greater quantities, libraries multiplied and the illiteracy rate was reduced.

Predictably, Mergenthaler—a technician, not a moneyman—was treated badly by the “publishers syndicate” that financed the development of the Linotype. Expecting rapid and large returns, they forced Ottmar to bring his invention to market before it was ready and manipulated the patent system for their own gain.

Along with other inventors of his generation, Ottmar Mergenthaler exhibited little interest in riches or personal glory. After twenty years of work and following a serious illness, he and his family took their first vacation. Traveling to his hometown in Wurttemberg, Ottmar was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Upon their return to America, however, Ottmar Mergenthaler was diagnosed with TB and, at the age of 45, he died on October 28, 1899.

Typography & the content of the message

When I was 19-years-old, I decided I wanted to be a graphic artist. It was actually during a drawing class that I became convinced that I needed to be a visual artist. I suppose I could have pursued fine art, but ultimately I was compelled by one thing: typography. Where do these graphic forms come from? Why do we use these iconographic images to communicate? How can typography (and other images) be used best to express the content of the message? These were and are still the most important questions of graphic design!

This brings me to the topic of my post. I just watched the documentary film, Helvetica directed by Gary Hustwit. As described on the film website, it is “a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture.” Although the movie was made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the modern and ubiquitous typeface family, it is something of a primer for all of us: it helps to connect the desktop, Internet and social media generations with the bigger picture of visual communications history and theory.

Helvetica is indeed everywhere and the movie shows this with its rich visuals of daily life in countries around the world. But the film is very important for its review of the changes in the twentieth century that first led to the creation of Helvetica as an international standard, later saw a movement against it and now, in the age of online communications, has seen something of a renaissance. Perhaps the movie itself is part of the renewed appreciation in the twenty-first century of this breakthrough font.

Helvetica is the quintessential modern, sans serif typeface and it is connected with the strivings of the design community in the 1950s for something new and global in character. As designer Massimo Vignelli explains, “When Helvetica came about we were all ready for it. It just had all the right connotations that we were looking for. For anything that had to spell out loud and clear: Modern.”

Helvetica was developed jointly by Swiss type designers Eduard Hoffman and Max Miedinger at the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland in 1957. It was originally called Die Neue Haas Grotesk. Since Haas was owned by Linotype and subject to the marketing interests of the large corporation, the name was later changed to Helvetica. In order to sell the font particularly in America, Hoffman and Miedinger agreed to change the name to an alteration of the Latin word for Switzerland (Helvetia), i.e. Helvetica is literally: The Swiss Typeface. The film includes an interview with Alfred Hoffman, son of Eduard, reviewing the specification sheets and hand written notations from the type design process. Hoffman, although he has gotten less credit for Helvetica than his partner, is revealed in the film as having had a clarity of vision with regard to the appearance and aesthetics of the form.

Several of those interviewed explain that the runaway attraction of Helvetica for the graphic design community, especially for corporate identity in the 1960s, was its simplicity and neutrality. Helvetica is the cameleon of graphic communications; it can be used to embody the identity of almost any concept or organization. It can also be equally used to communicate simple public information and is very often used in directional signage. Soon almost everyone was using Helvetica to transform their look and cast away the remnants of the premodern world. The film then illustrates the impact of the font on US and European corporations; the number of companies that adopted it appears substantial and shocking even for someone like myself who pays attention to such matters.

But, as the movie also clearly shows, Helvetica—and the rules of typography as they had come to be understood—eventually came under attack by notions of postmodernism. This took the form of a rejection of the structure, clarity and rules that were the bedrock of the design of Helvetica. The critics said that typography itself does indeed need to convey something more than the meaning of the words they express; some even said that the type needs to have its own message and the meaning of the words are of little consequence. In the backlash, Helvetica was said to have become identified with safety, conformism and predictability in design. Helvetica and its sense of structure was the dull and conservative background noise that had to be displaced by more expressive forms.

The counter-culture began in the 1970s as the postmodernists circumvented what they perceived as the boredom of Helvetica with things like illustrated typography. Veering in the direction of fine art, type began to take on many different chaotic forms. Experimental works that pushed the limits of legibility were the rage. Postmodernist design was also enabled by the technological revolution of the personal computer, where the structured principles of type design were violated by anyone who felt like it. With that went the business of typography; Adobe, Apple and Microsoft became the bearers of the intellectual property of generations of type designers going back to Gutenberg.

The theory of the postmodernists, or lack thereof, is expressed most clearly in the film by David Carson whose work became popular in the 1980s and world-renowned in the 1990s. Known as the father of “grunge design” Carson says, “I have no formal training in the field. In my case, I never learned all the things I wasn’t supposed to do. I was doing the things that made sense to me. I was just experimenting … I didn’t understand why people were getting so upset … only much later did I learn what the terms ‘modernism’ and this and that.” While the aestheticism Carson represents may be good at conveying visual atmospherics, it is not effective for typographic communications; it is all about impact through anticommunication (if that is even a word).

Fortunately, and I think naturally, the deconstructionist approach could not predominate. With the development of the online publishing and the pixel grid of the computer display, typography has moved back more closely to rationality. While it is certainly possible to find poor typography on the web, there is an awareness and sensitivity among a growing group of us about what is good, effective and appropriate use of type. As is pointed out at the end of the film, social networks are now playing a role in the development of new and innovative approaches to typography. The growth of the networked mobile device will certainly also contribute to this evolution.

I am the last to argue that the history of typography ends with Helvetica. However, it appears that things went off-the-rails for a period and we are now somewhere between 1957 and the next great step in the evolution of typography beyond Helvetica. Perhaps we will see something that dovetails with tiny URLs, texting and 140 character limits.