"He Wears Black and Has a Beard"

Typesetting in 1980: Reverse Engineering the Linotron 202

Toby Roworth

Jan 6, 2014

As regular readers may have noticed, I have something of an interest in the history of typesetting. Great as Illustrator and InDesign are for creatively setting text, it can often just feel like pressing buttons until it works; adding a bit more tracking here, reducing the kerning there and adjusting the leading until the page looks right. Modern typography still has very deep roots in old typography, and a study of it can lead to more educated decisions. And it's quite interesting!
So when I saw a video about "jailbreaking" an early printer, it seemed worth a watch , combining my interests in computers and typesetting. I had no idea quite how interesting it would be, however.
Professor Brailsford discusses in depth the story of how Bell Labs reverse engineered the workings of the 202 printer in order to use their own fonts. He tells the story far better than I, so the video is here:

And then I found out he'd written a paper on the process he used to resurrect the document, a fine example of what's best described as "computational archaeology". To put this in context, I'd spent a couple of days neck-deep in a lit-review for an assignment, and one of the first things I did to wind down was read yet another academic paper, describing this process (Bagley, Brailsford and Kerningham, 2013).
I think the really interesting thing about all of this is how much history of typography it pulls together - the 202 was an early ancestor of modern laser printers, yet still capable of printing at 700 DPI, which my inkjet still struggles to do well. troff was a predecessor of TeX and LaTeX, still used by academics for typesetting today. InDesign uses a justification algorithm extraordinarily similar to that used by TeX. And this reverse engineering process is fundamental today in making the Linux kernel able to support so many different pieces of hardware. And it used vector fonts - a staple of modern typography. And yet the fonts used stemmed from the turn of the century, if not before. Linotype were still at the forefront of typographic innovation, just like they had been with their hot metal casting machine.
Plenty more information is available at the project's homepage, as well as the reconstructed documents