Gene Gable is Waxing Nostalgic Over Paste-Up [via The Cartoonist].

Back in the pre-DTP era, the only way to get decent-looking type and page layout (besides metal and woodtype, specialty processes since the sixties if not before) was to enlist the services and technology of a typesetter and their large, heavy, amazing computational devices known as phototypesetters (scroll down in link).

Back in those dark days I apprenticed on the AM Varityper and would occasionally help Steve out on his Compugraphic device. The Varityper ran on CP/M and stored data on 8″ square floppies; the Compugraphic model that Steve used had, to my knowledge, no long-term storage, although I beleive you could edit what was in the buffer.

These systems used lights, phtoosensitive paper, a daunting system of photochemicals and developing machines. Upon either a disk or flexible plastic strip, transparent images of each character in a font had been printed. In the typesetting process these characters were exposed, one at a time, appropriately mechanically enlarged or reduced, onto the ‘slicks,’ the rolls of phototype paper. The operator would then take the roll of exposed paper, encased within a light-tight receptacle, and feed it though the developer.

Once the type had been developed, one cut it up, waxed the paper, and laid it out on boards, using rulers, T-squares and triangles to maintain a semblance of order.

The codes used to tell the machines to make type a certain size or to tab around in a table were not at all dissimilar from HTML; the main differences being in the actual grammar and vocabulary of the codes and the trifling fact that except for the very last generation of machines there was no way to visually preview your work until you looked at the developed typesheets.

Ah, by cracky. I must be among the youngest people to be trained on these systems, having graduated high school the year the Mac was introduced. By 1987 the era was over. My friend Wes once told me how as a sailor during the Gulf War he helpd as his ship had dumped their Varityper overboard at sea when they got the new system for the ships’ newspaper.

[smacks gums, leans on cane, squints out from rocker through bifocals]

Gable’s piece includes images and discussions of a number of the artifacts of the era, including technical pens and X-Acto knives. I have some very nice technical penas that haven’t seen use in at least ten years, if anyone’s interested. A full set of Mars Stadtler and an off-brand set. The Mars nibs are a physical pleasure to use.

3 thoughts on “The 'waning of waxing'

  1. I did a little of this kind of paste-up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. My favorite part was running things through the waxer, which we would load up with big gelatinous cakes of wax that heated up and melted. There’s another obsolete industry for ya…

  2. I really love the word “waning,” though it always sounds slightly obscene to me. Please note I am *guaranteed* to giggle if anything’s waning around me.

    I wish I could have done old-time typesetting. Sigh!

  3. Ah yes, the golden age of waxing. That’s what my partner Keith and I did back at the ol’ Rutgers Review, and I even have a couple of our more complicated boards as souvenirs. Fun fun double-waxing…

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