Once Works Well was pure technology. Now it seeks merely to divert.
Pansy subjects - Verse! Opera! Domestic trivia! - are now commonplace.
The 300-word limit for posts is retained. The ego is enlarged

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Now, the computer does the measuring

Pretty boring photo, I’m afraid. Perhaps that’s forgivable since it’s here for sentimental reasons.

The millimetric scale on the right suggests it’s a ruler. However the units on the left won’t be familiar to everyone for this is an em-rule used in an activity that has almost disappeared. Twenty-five years ago, if you wanted to lay out a page design for a magazine or a newspaper you cut up galley-proofs with a pair of scissors and glued them to a large sheet of paper. The stone-hand or clicker at the printer’s used this to create the design for real with cast metal type. Now the designer creates a virtual page on a computer screen and sends the result over the wires in file form.

Printing employs some of the most wilfully obscure units outside pharmacology. Typeface heights come in points and there are a handy 72 of them to the inch. Theoretically column widths could be similarly measured but because this would lead to large figures ems (equivalent to 12 points) are preferred. These archaic units are retained on DTP software and elsewhere on computers because printing is nothing if not conservative.

When computer design became widely available I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. Now, with a perversity born out of wishes granted, I have sentimental (if not practical) regrets. Print-shops were smelly, dirty, esoteric places filled with ex-apprentice craftsmen who shared a journalist’s desire to put ink on paper. I enjoyed their company. The em-rule is a memorial to that friendship.

6 comments:

Zhoen said...

Something satisfying about making an object that can be handled. Dirt, oil, blood and all.

marja-leena said...

Nostalgia for the old ways... Typesetting with the old metal letters is now an art form popular with some artists. I remember visiting an old village/museum in Finland that included a print shop with all the old type, presses and inks, all lovingly demonstrated and explained by an elderly man.

Julia said...

I've never used ems but a ruler (with ems on one side and points on the other) came with me to Prague from my days working at a magazine. I figured I'd use it sometime and sure enough we still do.

Plutarch said...

Hot metal! We shall never smell its like again!

Avus said...

Interesting. I wonder how those obscure printing measurements evolved?
As to once essential/now useless tools - I still have my slide rule which I could once play like a musical instrument - now all done more quickly and with less skill by a cheap pocket calculator.
I guess Neolithic man was having the same thoughts when flint knapping skills were rendered redundant by the Chalcolithic Age.

Barrett Bonden said...

Avus: I hope you'll forgive me but I always thought a slide rule was more for showing off than legitimate calculation.