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Photon: Printing Revolution

Photographic Typesetting May Replace Linotype

By Andrew W. Bingham

For more than a year one small, daily newspaper on Boston's South Shore has used in its regular operations one of the most revolutionary innovations in the printing business in the past 75 years. The Quincy Patriot Ledger, with a circulation of 44,000, is the paper. The innovation is Photon--a process for setting type photographically, rather than through the use of any hot metal casting system.

At present the Ledger has only two Photon machines, but it is so satisfied with their performance in composing the editorial page and some advertising lay-outs that it is already planning to replace all its conventional hot metal type-casting machines, generally known by the trade name of Linotype, with Photon machines.

But the Ledger is not the only organization which wants the new machine. Some 125 different groups, including the Crimson have obtained options for Photon, which was developed and manufactured in a small factory on Charles Street near Kenmore Square.

A Computing Machine?

At first glance, the Photon machine looke like a compact IBM-type computing machine. It has only three major components: a standard Underwood electric typewriter, a telephone relay system, and a photographing unit. Its basic difference from the conventional method of hot-metal type-setting are two. The keyboard of a typecaster is big and complex. Photon uses the keyboard of a standard electric typewriter. And secondly, the end product is different. The old machine casts individual lines of type. Photon, on the other hand, actually sets no type. It simply reproduces, on film, type in any style and size.

By manipulating the appropriate controls located beside the actual keyboard, the Photon operator can pre-set the width of the column and the style and size of the type. Then he can start touch-typing on the keyboard. When he reaches the minimum number of spaces to fill out the desired width, a bell will ring. Another bell will ring upon reaching the maximum number of characters for one line. When this point has been reached, the machine will lock automatically.

The operator can see in front of him just what he has typed. If, upon the completion of one line, he sees a mistake, he can go back to the faculty character, push a correction key, and then type the correct character in its place. Only when the operator starts work on the succeeding line will the original one be reproduced photographically. The machine, in other words, has a built-in-memory system for one line.

Reproduction Technique

Actual photographic reproductions of the line is done through a spinning glass matrix disk, bearing the type characters. On one side of this disc is a light, and on the other the film. Once a line is completed, the light starts picking out the right characters on the disc and projecting them on to the film. This is a very rapid process: the disc on the latest Photon machine, the "200" series, spins through eight revolutions per second, picking out one character each time.

Once the film has been exposed, it is taken out of the Photon machine and developed. Then it is a relatively simple darkroom process to prepare the film for printing, either on an offset or a letter press.

Probably the greatest single advantage of Photon is its versatility. Without any more effort than pushing a different control, the operator can switch type faces and sizes in the middle of lines. The machine, moreover, will still tell him when he has typed a full line, no matter how many different sizes of types he uses.

A hot-metal typesetting machine could not do any complex work like this so automatically. It would require a highly skilled operator four times longer to set up in type any of the complicated lay-outs so often used in advertising copy. A competent Photon operator, however, can learn how to use his machine in about two weeks. And his speed, even on normal, "straight" copy, is on the average twice as fast as that of the conventional machine's operator.

Developed by Frenchmen

The inventors of this machine are two Frenchmen, Rene A. Higonnet and Louis Moyroud. These men first developed the process in France during the Second World War. They came to the United States, and to Cambridge, in 1945. The performance of their first test model induced the Lithomat Corporation to undertake the development and perfection of their machine. In 1948, with the machine still not ready for production, the Graphic Arts Research Foundation, Inc., was founded to help the inventors. This non-profit organization has financed the further development of Photon by soliciting contributions from 200 to 300 firms in the graphic arts industry. Actual production of the machine started only about two years ago, and there are still only five machines in commercial operation, with four more ready for shipment to the Ledger next March. By next year, the manufacturers hope to have some 50 machines in operation in scattered points throughout the United States.

The relation between the Graphic Arts Research Foundation and Photon, Inc. is an interesting one. Both are located in the same building and many of the officials of the non-profit organization are also connected with the Manufacturing licensee company. The Research Foundation was established in recognition of "the urgent need for research in the graphic arts." The organizers realized that the printing and publishing industry was not research conscious, and that specific research projects would be required to attract the needed, initial financial support. Consequently, Photon was chosen as the basis of the Foundation's first project. It owns all patents and patent applications under which Photon, Inc., is licensed. Since it is a non-profit organization, however, its share of the profits of the manufacturing licensee are immediately turned over for further research in the graphic arts field.

Linotype Used in 1880's

For more than 70 years, printing plants have generally set up type with machines employing the hot metal casting system, first developed by Ottmar Mergenthaler in the 1880's. Since then, these big, complex machines have become an integral part of all printing shops. They virtually eliminated the need for setting type by hand. Their speed, efficiency, and economy were considered phenomenal when they first appeared. For many people they seemed to be the final answer for most printing needs.

Later modifications of the hot metal typesetting technique have inmproved the efficiency of the original invention, but they have not changed this one basic fact, that all type is prepared for the printing presses through some system which employs hot metal casting.

The photocomposition system used by Photon is the first really new development in printing since Mergenthaler's invention. It promises to outdate, in time, all the conventional methods of hot-metal typesetting. The machine's performance for the Ledger--that newspaper intends to replace its 23 linotype machines with eight or ten of Photon--certainly indicates that someday photocomposition machines will be in as common use as Mergenthaler's invention is today.

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