Frank Romano and the Phototypesetting Era

Jim Hamilton
Jan 2, 2015

Frank Romano is at it again. His latest, History of the Phototypesetting Era, follows the publication last summer of his History of the Linotype Company. Both books have been aptly described as time capsules. Particularly notable throughout all his writings are Romano’s attention to detail, his desire to document events, and, in the case of this latest book, an “I was there” perspective.

Romano’s History of the Phototypesetting Era is remarkable as much for its voluminous content as it is for the way it was published as part of a ‘Learning by Doing’ class at Cal Poly starting in the fall of 2013. The class members, who are credited as co-authors, worked with Romano to compile this 480-page, profusely illustrated, perfect-bound book, which was produced in four-color using offset printing for some sections and color digital printing for the rest of the pages (see the Production Note below).

The content of the book is mind-boggling in its detail and extent. Because of this, few will take the time to read the entire book from cover to cover. In fact, at times it reads more like a database than a narrative, and yet I suspect that is exactly what Frank was aiming for. He notes, for example, that he has repeated some material so that individual chapters will be as complete as possible. By doing this, he acknowledges that some readers will zero in on only a few key sections of interest. One chapter that will be of interest to many is ‘The girl and the union,’ which covers the economic and social impact of phototypesetting. This chapter is an intriguing look into the attitudes of the day, the power struggle between management and unions, and the role that women played in the technology shift.

Some of the readers who will devour this tome are today’s technologists and historians. Some of those who will appreciate this book have not yet been born. A hundred years from now some intrepid historians will be trying to understand the technology bridge that links typography between the hot metal and desktop publishing eras. There will be few or no phototypesetting devices left then, and I am sure that these people will turn to the History of the Phototypesetting Era.

For those of us without technological or historical motives, the book has other pleasures. The many color and black & white photos and illustrations are definitely a high point. It is rare to find a book that is so extensively illustrated. Among these illustrations are scores of phototypesetting products with bizarre names like CompuRub, Discotype, Fotomat, Rotofoto, Stripprinter, Volt, and ZIP Machine. These brands give a sense of the advertising and marketing mindset of the era. Another strength of the book is the foundation of material that came from Frank’s magazine TypeWorld. Frank also credits John Seybold and The Seybold Report as an important source to find and verify information that was included in the book.

Perhaps even more important than anything in the book was the gift (in the form of a life lesson) that Frank gave to his students. As Cal Poly Professor Emeritus Dr. Harvey Levenson says in the book’s afterword: “Frank Romano left his students with a sense [of] how the past is a window on the future.”

While letterpress and hot metal have recently experienced a renaissance among designers and artists, it is hard to imagine anything similar happening with phototypesetting. For one, phototypesetting does not have the three-dimensional end result that hot metal typesetting does. In the future, no one is going to ooh and ah over photo paper or film output (assuming that they are able to find any). The cold hard fact is that phototypesetting, an intermediary step in the offset printing process, has entirely disappeared. It has been consolidated out of existence by electronic prepress and desktop publishing. There will be no future niche market for phototypesetting yet there is much to be learned from the phototypesetting era for today’s students as well as for tomorrow’s.

Like History of the Linotype Company, this new book is another historic time capsule courtesy of Frank Romano. Thank you, Frank! Publishing two labors of love in one year would be an accomplishment for anyone, but for Frank Romano it should come as no surprise. (He’s written more than 50 books.) One wonders what he has in mind for 2015.

You can order “History of the Phototypesetting Era” for $39.95 through Amazon.

Frank Romano is a Lead Strategist with InfoTrends and a regular contributor to our InfoBlog.

Production note: The offset component was printed on 70 lb. Accent Opaque Offset Super Smooth White Text using a Heidelberg Speedmaster. A Konica Minolta bizhub Pro C8000 printing on 70 lb. Accent Opaque Digital Super Smooth White Text was used for the digitally printed section. The covers were printed using offset on Accent Opaque Smooth White 120 lb. Cover Folio. The papers are all from International Paper. Toner was provided by Ultrex Business Products. The job preparation, printing, and binding were done by students in the Cal Poly Graphic Communications program at the campus printing operation. The production quality of the book is very high and provides a good comparison of offset and digital on similar stocks.

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