Yesterday's Technology . . . Today!

This story is taken from Merchant of Alphabets by Reginald Orcutt.

The Matrix Engineer

FAR MORE than the layman may find it easy to appreciate, every good type letter is fraught with human spirit. Whether its essence stems from the Humanists of the Renaissance, or comes from the artistic expression of to-morrow morning, its beauty and clarity - and thus its legibility and function - stem from the genius and personality of the artist who designed it and the craftsman who brought it into being.

To translate the original letter design from drawing into type - to recapture truly and completely in cold metal every characteristic touch and nuance of feeling of the artist - is the task of the matrix engineer. From the purely mechanical viewpoint his craft must cope with countless infinitesimal accuracies that are worked out mathematically to at least three decimal places.

In this the craftsman utilizes many mechanical aids. Photography, too, is useful for guidance and for reference. But cameras and mechanics are as inadequate here as they are to the sculptor or the painter. There must, for this task, be a human " plus," because the finished matrices, like the letter drawings themselves, must be literally letter-perfect. Thus the letter drawings, several inches high, are traced with absolute accuracy, by a special pantographic device, upon a plate of brass.

The background is then meticulously routed out, leaving the large brass letter in sharp relief. This is the master pattern.

But now the master pattern goes to the punch-cutting machine, one of the marvels of modern precision, for it is controlled to better than one fifteenth-thousandth part of an inch in accuracy. As the operator's hand traces the outlines of the master pattern a microscopic cutting tool etches the master pattern's greatly reduced counterpart into a piece of soft steel.

The counterpart is perfect. The transfer is flawless. And the letter is reduced to correct type size.

The etched piece of steel is now heated in an electric furnace and then is plunged into oil, whereupon the soft steel is transformed into a " punch " so hard, so tough, so strong that it can strike its face deep into solid brass, thus transferring every delicate curve, every beauty of line and serif, to the vitally important matrix.

And the matrix, which now bears the letter that is the reason for its being, evolves further, through fifty-six individual mechanical operations, before it is ready to take its place in a Linotype and play its part in the creation of the printed word.

Copyright © Dave Hughes 2000-2015. All rights reserved.