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.
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
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
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
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