Type Americana

Getting ready for my talk on November 12th at Type Americana in Seattle.

I’ll be speaking about Linn Boyd Benton at this conference, and Juliet Shen will talk about Morris Fuller Benton.

Yesterday I went in to the Cary Collection at RIT to look through my Benton files once more. I found an old xerox copy of a photograph of Boyd Benton (as he was called) at the age of 20, but it didn’t have the sparkle of the photograph we used on the Type Americana website (see below). One of the things I want to discuss in Seattle  is how happy Linn Boyd Benton was at his type foundry in Milwaukee. It’s a conjecture on my part, perhaps, but one that has been corroborated by (and in fact suggested to me by) Benton’s great-grandson. Benton invented the punch engraving machine there, in order to more quickly produce fonts of his other new invention, the so-called self-spacing types. He had been working on a different invention, a justifying machine, but when the type he designed for it appeared to be marketable in itself, he switched gears and poured all of his efforts into getting his self-spacing types to market as quickly as possible. It must have been an exciting time.

Boyd Benton had a rich, full life in Milwaukee. He was very happily married, and although his son Morris was a sickly child, the family took good care of him and eventually he overcame the after-effects of the scarlet fever and other illnesses he had had as a young boy. Boyd had a fine baritone voice, and sang as a soloist in St. James and St. Paul Episcopal Churches in Milwaukee. He and his wife also belonged to a singing society, and took part in a number of Gilbert and Sullivan and other light operas.

I also want to share several anecdotes about Boyd Benton’s childhood at the conference, because they reveal his unusual character. More later . . .

A Modest Man

I’m happy to report that my book about Linn Boyd Benton and Morris Fuller Benton is currently in the design phase at the RIT Press.

During the course of my most recent research for editing the book, I found an anonymous June 1893 Inland Printer article entitled “L. B. Benton,” which gives a brief summary of his life up to that point and a description of his famous punch cutter. One sentence in the article jumped out at me: “Mr. Benton is, like most men who have accomplished much, modest in discussing his achievements.” This succinct and eloquent description of Benton’s temperament is discussed at some length in my book. Linn Boyd Benton has been called a mechanical genius: “He was one of those people who could see with his hands.”[1] But despite this gift, modesty and humility were perhaps the salient characteristics of both Linn Boyd and his son, Morris Fuller Benton, endearing them to their associates but frustrating more than one writer who was trying to tell their story.

That 1893 Inland Printer sentence reminded me of a Greek proverb that my mother-in-law, who also doesn’t like to boast, has often repeated: Τό καλό φαίνετε (Toh kaló fénete), which she translates as, “The good shows.”

Recently I was talking with an RIT student who was raised in Japan. She told me that one of her favorite Japanese proverbs conveyed a similar sentiment. In Japanese it’s written like this:  能ある鷹は爪を隠す。(Nou aru taka wa tsume o kakusu.) A loose translation: “An eagle who knows how to use them well hides its talons.”

After thinking about the Bentons for more than 25 years, I have to say that I’m most impressed by this disposition of theirs. Even from the stories of Linn Boyd Benton’s exceptional childhood, told to me by his granddaughter Caroline Benton Gregg, I got the sense that not only was he a precocious child, but that as a child he was also already beginning to learn humility from his experiences. It may not be considered by many people an essential character trait these days, but St. Augustine wrote that, of all the virtues, the three most important were humility, humility, and humility.

[1] Theo Rehak, in conversation with Linn Boyd Benton’s granddaughter Elizabeth Benton Swain, October 1987.

More on optical scaling

My last post (4/23) explained that some digital type designers today are interested in the way Morris Benton’s fonts, and indeed all the metal types produced by the American Type Foundry in the early 1900s, were optically scaled. Optical scaling was easily accomplished at ATF by adjusting certain settings on Linn Boyd Benton’s matrix engraving machine. Linn Boyd Benton explained in an essay he wrote in about 1906:

The adjustments are such that the operator is enabled to engrave the letter proportionately more extended or condensed, and lighter or heavier in face, than the pattern. All these variations are necessary for the production of a properly graded modern series containing the usual sizes. In fact, on account of the laws of optics, which cannot be gone into here, only one size of a series is cut in absolutely exact proportion to the patterns.

The illustration of optical scaling reproduced below was made in 1989 by ATF’s successor, the Kingsley/ATF Type Corporation. At the time, Kingsley/ATF was embarking on a program of digitizing typefaces, including the optical scaling characteristics of the original metal types. Ultimately, the company went bankrupt in the early 1990s, but that’s another story.

The illustration uses the capital M from Morris Benton’s Wedding Text, designed in about 1901. In the earlier “metal type” days at ATF, the set of Wedding Text patterns, one image for each letter (these particular patterns, by the way, are now part of RIT’s Benton Collection), were used to produce matrices for every type size. According to the handwritten “daybook” of general engraving machine settings for cutting the matrices for 228 ATF typefaces, no size of Wedding Text was cut exactly proportional to the pattern. Instead, the matrices for each type size were either condensed or expanded in relation to the pattern. (In most other typefaces, one size, usually somewhere in the middle of the range of sizes for that face, was “normal,” i.e., the letters were cut exactly proportional to the images on the patterns, not condensed or expanded.)

To generate this illustration, Kingsley/ATF photographically enlarged these three sizes of a Wedding Text capital M to a uniform height, so that customers could then easily compare them. Notice that the smaller the size, the more expanded the character. This is necessary simply for legibility, although in the days of metal type mechanical parameters also dictated that smaller sizes be expanded.

In addition to the expansion or condensation of the letter, the “set width” of letters in different sizes also had to be adjusted for good optical scaling. The set width is the total amount of horizontal space (width) on a piece of metal type. In order for the eye to be able to read very small type, more white space is needed around each letter, so the type needs to be relatively wide.

Kingsley/ATF produced the following illustration, also in 1989, to show its customers this aspect of optical scaling. Because enlarging this sample will perhaps also distort it, I’ve left it at its original size; I apologize for the very small 6-point example. But hopefully it is understandable. I’ve re-typed the Kingsley/ATF caption to this illustration below it in case the original caption is too small to decipher.

Kingsley/ATF’s original caption: “Notice the difference between a true 6-point type enlarged to 24 points and a true 24-point type. The true sizes were created using Optical Scaling. Typeface: Wedding Text”

More later …

Why a book about the Bentons?

Why would anyone today care about what the Bentons were doing with metal type more than 100 years ago? (These days I’m in the last stages of tweaking my book about them, and I must confess that sometimes this question still haunts me.) But in fact, I’ve found that plenty of people do care, especially those involved with designing or improving digital type.

Just the other day a group of digital type designers came to RIT who were pursuing the train of thought begun in a 1912 type legibility study, one that Morris Benton worked on!

Type designers today have to deal with what came naturally to the punchcutter when he cut punches by hand. [For anyone new to the subject, the punch was a raised, reversed (“wrong-reading”) image that determined the shape of a letter. It was pounded into a brass bar which became the matrix, with a sunken, right-reading image. The matrix, fixed in a type mold, was then used to cast individual types, again wrong-reading so that they would appear right-reading when printed.] What came naturally to the punchcutter was that letters must be slightly distorted as they become larger or smaller. Today we call this phenomenon optical scaling.

In my book I explain the term like this:

Briefly put, because of the inherent limitations of the human visual system, as the size of a letterform gets smaller it needs to be expanded, and as it gets larger it needs to be condensed. “Traditional punchcutters and scribes made such proportional changes in order to optimize legibility,” RIT Professor Charles Bigelow wrote. “Recent research in visual perception suggests that such proportional changes are necessary because the human visual system has non-linear sensitivity to visual features of different spatial frequencies.”[1]

Benton understood that slightly distorting the characters as they went up or down in size enabled the basic design to retain its integrity, and so he built this capability into the matrix engraving machine. For example, according to a hand-written ATF reference book, each size of Morris Benton’s Wedding Text was expanded or condensed relative to the pattern for the typeface. Many years later, ATF’s successor, the Kingsley/ATF Type Corp., coined the term “optical scaling” to describe this phenomenon of distorting letters.

[1] Charles Bigelow, “On Type: Form, Pattern, & Texture in the Typographic Image,” Fine Print 15, no. 2 (April 1989): 77.

Optical scaling is as important today as it ever was. Digital type on a computer screen especially needs to be as legible and comfortable to read as possible.

Type designers may ask: Can we systematize optical scaling? Is there an algorithm that we can use to tweak the letters at various sizes for optimum results? This is the same question Benton faced in the early 1880s in Milwaukee as he worked on his pantographic matrix engraving machine. Theo Rehak told me this past February (see my 2/14 and 2/22 posts) that he was sure there was such an algorithm. But, as he explained in Practical Typecasting, Benton’s “Engraving Factor Tables” were lost after he died. Today Rehak is not in the business of producing the full range of sizes of his metal type offerings at the Dale Type Foundry, so he can manage without such an algorithm.

When I Google “optical scaling Benton,” there are about 183,000 results in 0.28 seconds; it’s not a dead subject. It seems to me that anyone who admires Morris Benton’s optically scaled typefaces would do well to study how his father’s matrix engraving machine actually distorted the letterforms on the patterns it used for making type in different point sizes. My book would be a very good starting point for such a study.

The invention of coated paper

The other day I noticed that I needed to add a footnote to my book about the Bentons, in order to substantiate the fact that Theodore Low De Vinne commissioned the S. D. Warren Paper Company to make a coated paper for his printing press. This came up because I wanted to show several examples of De Vinne’s propensity to act as a catalyst in a new venture or invention. (In about 1893 or 1894 De Vinne asked the American Type Founders Company, and Linn Boyd Benton in particular, to help him design and cut a new typeface for his Century magazine, because he was not satisfied with the types he was using.) I found the reference in Eugene Ettenberg’s Type for Books and Advertising (1947) and added it to the text. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it, so I dug a little deeper.

In 2005, David R. Godine published a book by Irene Tichenor entitled No Art Without Craft: The Life of Theodore Low De Vinne, Printer. Tichenor writes that “Charles M. Gage, the actual inventor, made it clear that he had invented paper coated on both sides in Massachusetts in late 1874 or early 1875 at the specific request of De Vinne … who needed it for a catalogue with colored wood-engraved illustrations.” (page 114; Tichenor’s book is on Google Books.)

De Vinne’s desire and subsequent request to Charles Gage profoundly affected the future of the printing industry. Who doesn’t handle several if not tens or even hundreds of coated printed pages every day? Apparently De Vinne later decided that he didn’t like the paper at all, and “although he had been a pioneer in the use of dry paper to meet the exigencies of speed, he admitted to a ‘returning kindliness for damp paper.'”

The advent of coated paper in the 1870s came out of one person’s idea, desire, and drive. No doubt it would have been invented later on if De Vinne hadn’t pursued it at that time. But that desire, at that time, unpredictably brought forth something that quickly changed the direction of the paper industry, the printing industry, and even the way we are presented with information today. It reminds me of chaos theory. And it reminds me of the Bentons, too.

I go on at some length in my book about the other pantographic engraving machines that were being used to engrave matrices (not very successfully) at the same time that it was dawning on Linn Boyd Benton that the best way to produce his new ‘self-spacing type’ would be with a pantographic machine that cut the models for electrotyping matrices. (This was around 1882.) Ultimately it was Benton who succeeded in building a machine that could do the job easily and well, which in turn (within a matter of just a few years) enabled another machine, the Linotype, to become viable, and to gradually replace most of the foundry type in the world with machine-set type– in effect, eroding the business that Linn Boyd Benton’s machine was invented for! Without Benton’s ambition, Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine might have never been successful, and we might have taken a completely different route to where we are today, or to somewhere else we can’t imagine.

Mergenthaler too had a lot of desire, an almost manic drive to make something that would work. His story takes up many pages in my book about the Bentons.

When I started revising the Benton manuscript a few years ago, I thought that the process would take maybe three to five months. How wrong I was. At the moment I’ve put on the brakes, and now am trying strictly to clean up the loose ends and finish the illustrations. But it is fascinating to think about all the other stories that pop up.

More later …

The No. 55 Benton matrix engraver

The famous Benton matrix engraving machine.

Linn Boyd Benton’s No. 55 matrix engraver, as described in the American Machinist for December 16, 1909, consists of “two housings between which swings a long pendulum or arm … delicately suspended in a compound yoke by means of gimbal screws which gives it a toggle-joint effect.”

At the Dale Type Foundry last Saturday, the No. 55 was in the middle of a job. The grease around the machine’s cutting tool (which spins like a dentist’s drill at a speed of 8,000 to 10,000 revolutions per minute) seemed ready to splash onto the empty cutting platform (the matrix jig had been removed), and had even spilled over into the bowl of the yoke above the pendulum arm. “Wow,” I thought. “This machine is really being used. It really works.”

The empty cutting platform.

The empty cutting platform.

I visited the Dale Type Foundry on a Saturday, which was great because no one was working and it was quiet enough to talk to Theo Rehak about the machines. Here were the inventions I had been thinking about for years. I went around the foundry announcing to my son Roger what they were. “Here is a stereotyping set-up; this is a fitting machine; there’s the horizontal Benton engraving machine.” Even though I had visited ATF in 1984 and taken photographs of a row of matrix engravers at that time, last Saturday was completely different. I held a follower in my own hand and traced around the outline of a 16-point Tory Text “H,” designed by Frederic Goudy in 1935. That’s a complicated letter!

I held a “quill” assembly (they hold the cutting tools), and then looked at the point of its cutting tool through the foundry’s Louis Pasteur-type measuring microscope from the 1890s (all cast iron). The measuring microscope magnifies the point of a cutting tool so that you can tell whether it needs to be re-ground.

“Across the center of the face or lens of the microscope, is arranged a fine scale [ruled] in [increments of] 0.0005 of an inch,” the American Machinist explained. This is about half the thickness of a cigarette paper. A cutting tool looks like a heavy nail under this microscope, and so the cutting tools can easily be gauged by eye—the 0.080-inch tool covers 160 lines on the scale, and the 0.001-inch tool covers two lines. The point of the cutting tool we looked at covered seven lines.

More later …



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 …