What’s this? Is it the Enigma Machine made famous again recently in the film The Imitation Game? No. That’s not what this is. It’s the keyboard for a Monotype machine, one of the last machines to produce individual type for letterpress printing. The Monotype machine was unveiled at San Francisco’s 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (now celebrating its centennial with programs and exhibits around San Francisco). With the machine, operators were able to create individual pieces of metal type required for a specific print job, specifying not only the letters they needed, but also the spacing and special characters. On the other end of the system, a Monotype caster would pop out the individual type, cast out of a molten metal mixture using a matrix of individual brass character molds. This was cutting-edge high-tech at the time. It sped up the typesetting process by creating all the individual characters needed on demand, rather than having to search through typecases and hoping you had enough t’s, r’s, e’s, etc. to set a given job.
Now of course, we type on the computer and text on our phones, and can change the size, style, and font of our words almost instantaneously. But letterpress printing was the name of the game from the 1440s when Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type until the mid-20th Century, when offset printing took over as the dominant form of graphic reproduction. In the 1980s, however, letterpress printing experienced a revival, as appreciators of the fine, old-timey craft created a demand for old-fashioned, high quality printing. Nothing in modern printing compares with the “bite” of real metal type into the paper, creating a highly tactile art form.
On February 28th, 2015, the Monotype system was on display at the centennial Open House of M & H Type, a craft foundry that has partnered with Arion Press, both housed in San Francisco’s Presidio, where they continue to publish limited-run, fine-art books for the discerning bibliophile. M & H type has the only monotype foundry that runs year-round, continuously since 1915.