A trip to see an original Benton matrix-engraving machine

This Saturday I’m going to visit Theo Rehak in Howell, New Jersey, to see his two working pantographic matrix-engraving machines, invented by Linn Boyd Benton. I think one of them dates all the way back to Benton’s Milwaukee type foundry, from about 1886. Theo and I have been corresponding for years, at least since 1993 when he read and edited an article I wrote for the American Printing History Association Journal about Linn Boyd Benton and his son Morris Fuller Benton.

At that time, I didn’t have a clear, detailed photograph of a Benton engraver for the article, so I traced one from a nine-year-old photocopy of a magazine article about how the American Type Founders Company (ATF) made type in the early 1900s using the “Benton system.” The article had appeared in the American Machinist magazine for December 16, 1909. I couldn’t find an original copy of that magazine anywhere in my home town of Rochester, New York. I had even traveled to the Syracuse University science library to photograph its copy of the article, only to find that those exact pages had been cut out of the bound volume of American Machinists from 1909!

So I struggled with a very dark photocopy of a picture of the Benton engraver, and later found out that Theo didn’t like my tracing! Maybe I left out some important part of the machine. I’ll ask him about that.

I had actually visited the old ATF headquarters in Elizabeth, New Jersey in November 1984 with Richard Marder, the grandson of one of the founders of ATF. He spent the better part of a day explaining many things to me, which I recorded in a notebook that I still have. Mr. Marder helped me to understand how the Benton engraver worked and told me what he remembered about Morris Benton. At the time I was researching the Bentons for my master’s thesis in Printing Technology from RIT.

The day I visited ATF, Theo Rehak was there working, although we didn’t meet each other. The company was struggling to stay in business; it was now a tenant in the building it had formerly owned. Mr. Marder introduced me to George Gasparik, who gave me a tour of the facility. We had to move the plastic off of several Benton machines so that I could photograph them—only one or two were actually being used. The photographs I took weren’t particularly detailed.

In 1984 I didn’t get to see how the Benton machine was adjusted for optically scaling the letter patterns it used to produce matrices for different sizes of type, but this Saturday I will. I’m bringing along copies of about ten or so pages of the ATF “Day Book,” which gives instructions for adjusting the machine for the various sizes of specific fonts. I’ll also take copies of the “cutting slips” for Morris Benton’s Freehand that Theo donated to the Benton collection at RIT’s Cary Library.

Mr. Marder read my completed thesis in the summer of 1986 and made a cassette tape of comments about it for me, which was very helpful for revising the manuscript. My expanded story of the Bentons, with many illustrations, is going to be published by the RIT Press. I’ve modified the original thesis considerably so that it will be understandable to readers who have no background in type.

This has been a very long process for me, and I guess I’ve been preparing for this trip for years. I’ve invited my two sons to come along on Saturday and see something they’ve been aware of their whole lives (one is 22 and the other is 19). Luckily they both live near Theo’s type foundry, Roger in Manhattan and Gus in the Bronx as a student at Fordham, so it will be an interesting diversion for them (I hope). In any case, Theo has mentioned several times that we’ll “do lunch,” which sounds good to me.

Tomorrow, Friday, I’m going to see Jan Siegel, the Rare Book Librarian in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Columbia University. Columbia inherited ATF’s extensive type library the first time the company went bankrupt (in 1936), and so all of the original type specimens and books that Morris Fuller Benton studied for his type revivals and legibility studies should be there. This ATF Collection has an original copy of the American Machinist article, as well as several other original documents I want to photograph. Actually, the main reason for my going to Columbia is to show Jane the 21 references I’ve made to Columbia in my book, to make sure they are properly documented.

More to come …

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4 responses to “A trip to see an original Benton matrix-engraving machine

  1. Maurice Greeson

    I came across this blog in my search for info on an interesting souvenir from the Graphic Arts Exposition, September, 1927. There are four sizes of type matrices of the “Lord’s Prayer” cut by a Benton Matrix Engraving Machine. The smallest is cut on a square of 4 points! The others are on 7, 12, and 24 point. Amazing for 1920’s technology! I just wondered if anyone else had heard of this. And, I would like to know when your book is available. Thanks…Maurice

    • Maurice: Thanks for your comment. My book is in production now at the RIT Press, and since there are a lot of illustrations this may take awhile. Hopefully it will be out before the end of the year.

  2. Today Montgomery

    Hi Patricia Cost, 6/5/10
    You are welcome (answer to your email). I am building a print studio building here in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. I have been slowly acquiring tools of the trade in old, presses, cutter, trimmer, etc. I have already built a machine shop from old (funny hearing myself say that) machines, 50-70 years that were left to rust. I have rebuilt each machine with one as much as 600 hours time. Long story short, I want to build a Benton Engraver and was wondering if you could without any inconvenience send me a picture or two of the top looking down of No.55? I’m studying on the drawing board and would really rather not reinvent the wheel. With best regards, Today Montgomery

  3. Nice post on Matrix engraving machine.
    This post is really helpful for me when i will buy the new laser engraving machine…
    Thanks for the post and keep it up…!!!!

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