An epoch in the history of typography

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By | The Researcher’s View

In the preface to The Anatomy of Sleep Jamaican–Scottish physician Edward Binns (1804–1851) claims to have written the first ever treatise on “procuring sleep at will, by directing the activity of the cerebral organs”. But that isn’t the only first associated with this 1842 publication. Four pages later Binns acknowledges the ingenious inventors of a new machine used to lay out the text of the work. Binns was so taken by this book production innovation, he described the volume as “an epoch in the history of typography”, spawning “a new era in the history of literature”. He also offered to provide explanations of the production process to any callers at his Portman Square address.

V0000551 Edward Binns. Watercolour by A. Taylor, 1838. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Edward Binns. Watercolour by A. Taylor, 1838. Published: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Edward Binns was proud to author the first recorded book typeset with a machine. Watercolour by A Taylor, 1838. Wellcome Library reference: 1113i.

Binns acknowledged the new mechanical typesetting process in the preface to The Anatomy of Sleep:

“It would be unjust to the ingenious inventors of the Machine by which this work was composed not to say that we believe it must and will at no very distant period supersede in many departments of typography, composition in the usual mode.”The innovation in question was a new patent composing machine designed by James Hadden Young, a Lille silk merchant, and industrialist Adrien Delcambre, of the same city. Built with the help of English engineer Henry Bessemer, the device was patented in Britain in 1840 and demonstrated to the London public in the summer of 1842. Binns wasn’t alone in his support of Young and Delcambre’s mechanical method for laying out and justifying lines of type. A lengthy critique of The Anatomy of Sleep in the Monthly Review stated, “The first thing we shall notice about the beautifully-got-up volume is that it has been typographically composed by machinery…” The Mechanic and Chemist called the composing machine “a felicitous contrivance” and the London Morning Herald predicted “an entire revolution… of the printing trade”. Punch magazine even coined a joke or two about it.

Young and Delcambre’s elegant, rather ecclesiastical, invention looked more suited to a sombre Victorian parlour than a busy printing office. When the ‘player’ struck keys on a piano-like keyboard (hence the alternative name, ‘pianotyp’) lines of letters were dispatched into a box ready for justifying. The female operators were assisted by young boys, who replenished the 72 channels of metal type. So easy was the device to use, that the player needed little knowledge of the typesetting process. Writing in French, the editor of the Courrier du Nord reported in 1843, “My words form, my sentences stretch out before my eyes, they match up on their own and, without any more knowledge of typographical arts than you may have, thanks to this quasi-intelligent machine, I am a typesetter.” [translation sourced from Jarrige F. The Gender of the Machine. Revue d’Histoire Modern et Contemporaine 2007;54(1):193–221]


The patent composing machine, or pianotyp, installed at 110 Chancery Lane featured on the front page of the front page of the Mechanics’ Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette in June 1842.

The pianotyp may not look like cutting-edge industrial technology, but it markedly accelerated the typesetting process. At a time when traditional typesetters composed around 1500–2000 letters an hour, the proprietor of the Family Herald challenged a young woman on his staff to use the pianotyp to set at least 5000 characters an hour for ten consecutive hours on six consecutive days. She achieved the goal, earning herself £5 in the process. This bonus aside, the two- to three-fold increase in productivity was not matched with an increase in pay, as the Transactions of the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce pointed out. It’s no surprise then, that the new machine, and its promotion of female labour, was seen as a threat by the male-dominated print trade.

V0023786 Men working at a printing press, proofing copy, inking, and Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Men working at a printing press, proofing copy, inking, and setting type. Wood engraving after a woodcut by Stradanus, c.1580. By: Jan van der StraetPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

A sixteenth-century Dutch printing-office – the male typesetters sit by their type cases, at the left of the scene. Wood engraving by Jan van der Straet, after a woodcut by Stradanus, c.1580. Wellcome Library reference: 40663i.

By 1846 Young and Delcambre had abandoned promotion of the pianotyp and the second edition of Binns’ book (the edition available in the Wellcome Library) appears to have been set by hand. A raft of other attempts to mechanise the typesetting process launched in the following decades, but it wasn’t until German inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler developed Linotype in the 1880s that any established themselves as viable commercial propositions. Ideal for newspaper work, Linotype was followed by the book-friendly Monotype in the 1890s. Both processes could compose at least 9000 words an hour.

V0023752 A mechanized, shaft-driven printing-press, tended by workmen Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images A mechanized, shaft-driven printing-press, tended by workmen. Wood engraving by H. Linton after E. Bourdelin. By: E. Bourdelinafter: Henry Duff LintonPublished: - Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Typesetting was the final print production process to be mechanised, following the introduction of steam-operated presses in the 1810s. Wood engraving by H Linton, after E Bourdelin. Wellcome Library reference: 40502i.

Unfortunately for Dr Binns the Monthly Review suggested that The Anatomy of Sleep was not written by the most logical head in the land. The Medico-Chirugical Review, with ironic wit, even claimed it could send readers into a comatose sleep. Yet it was certainly an innovation in book production. The short-lived pianotyp also struck a chord with a public keenly interested in the growing mechanisation of the print trade. It’s hard to imagine a new book production process that could garner such attention in the 21st century. I also wonder which publication would be chosen to showcase such a technological development today. What are the chances it would be a medical text?

Author: Anna Faherty is an award-winning researcher, writer and teacher. Author of the Reading Room Companion, she is currently editing States of Mind: Experiences at the Edge of Consciousness, to be published by Wellcome Collection in 2016.

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