Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 787: STEREOTYPING

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 787.

Today, two technologists compete, and we all lose. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Stereotype means to cast a person in a preset mold -- to deny individuality. The word comes from a copying process invented in 1725 by William Ged. He was a Scottish goldsmith.

Ged found a way to speed printing. He molded a plate of type in papier maché. Then he used that mold to cast a lead copy of the plate. He got around the slow process of setting type for duplicate plates. He "stereotyped" the plate of type.

By then, English printing had just left the slums of European technology. Paper had been poor, printing shoddy. English books were a disgrace. The Star Chamber, the Royal censor, had so controlled printing in the 1600s as to rob it of all verve.

Then, in 1720, a printer named Bowyer spotted some fine lettering done by a young brass-cutter, William Caslon. Caslon engraved locks and barrels on fancy guns.

Bowyer asked Caslon if he could cut type. Caslon had never even seen type being cut, but he had artistic skill. So Bowyer bet on him. He handed him 500 pounds and told him to set up a type foundry.

It was a good move. Caslon soon set a new standard for English type. He modeled most of his fonts on Dutch type, but he refined them. He created a clean, uniquely English, typography.

Then a missionary society asked Caslon to create an Arabic type. They wanted to make Bibles for the Holy Land. Caslon made a fine Arabic font -- then Hebrew, Coptic, and Syriac fonts. In 1734 he published a specimen sheet with an array of type that puts my 20th-century computer system to shame.

Caslon was the archetype of the superb professional -- modest, able, reliable. But when Ged invented stereotyping, when the old met the new, Caslon unfurled a different set of colors. He sneered at Ged's process -- boasted he could duplicate plates just as fast. "I'll bet you 50 pounds you can't!" Ged shot back. So each went off with a page of type. Ged made three copies before Caslon even got started.

Ged won the bet, and he won a contract to print books for Cambridge University. But Caslon wasn't done yet. He planted saboteurs in Ged's shop. They ruined the work; they ruined Ged's business; they ruined him. Stereotyping vanished for 80 years.

And after Caslon died, his lovely typography fell out of use until this century. Fast printing pushed it out. Stereotyping came back to stay in 1804. And in the 1930s, my father would take me down to the newspaper where he worked. I would scavenge lead scraps from their stereotyping process. I would melt the scraps and recast them into my own stereotyped toy soldiers.

So we can only grieve the damage done by that senseless competition. How far ahead we'd all be if Caslon and Ged had only joined their immense talents -- 200 years sooner!

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Jennett, S., Pioneers in Printing. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1958, pp. 47-58.

For more on Caslon and for examples of his type, see the following websites:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caslon
http://www.typ.com/family/caslon



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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