The First Computer Typesetting Project

James Eve

The first externally funded research project that involved the Computing Laboratory was the earlier of two Computer Typesetting Projects initiated and directed by the late C.J.Duncan.

John Duncan was very much the driving force behind these projects. A scholar of St. John's College, Cambridge, he read mathematics and physics, graduating in 1938 when he joined Kodak. During the war he worked at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough where he eventually took charge of the night photography section. After the war, he returned briefly to Kodak before becoming Director of the new Department of Photography at King's College, subsequently the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. Under his guidance the work of the department grew to include film production, provision of closed circuit television facilities and guidance on audio-visual aids as well as a printing service for the rest of the University. In 1962 his interest in fine quality halftone work lead to the printing section being awarded the Litho-Printer Silver Plate in a national competition with the country's best professionals.

Although John began to think seriously about the use of computers in printing in 1958, even with his colossal energy, his extensive knowledge of, and contacts in the graphical arts world it was not until 1961 that he succeeded in both persuading colleagues to participate in and the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research to fund a project entitled 'Application of Computers to Typesetting'. (DSIR was in many ways a more enlightened body and certainly less politically blinkered than its successors.)

The original grant was from 31.3.62 to 31.7.64 but was then extended to 31.1.65. During this entire period Margaret Robson was seconded from the Computing Laboratory to write the programs abetted or sometimes hindered by James Eve. Ewan Page directed the programming effort. Lindsay Molyneux, from the Department of Physics, undertook the design and construction of the digital logic interconnecting or driving the various hardware devices on which the project depended. John Duncan provided overall control, specification of system requirements and liaison with industry to determine their requirements and reactions. Only Margaret worked full time on the project.

The Equipment

Until May 1964, all programs were written for the Lab's Ferranti Pegasus Computer which used five-hole paper tape as the primary input and output media. Five bit characters with a single shift character allowed a character set comprising upper case letters, decimal digits and a few punctuation and other sybols. The input rate was 200 char/sec and output eventually about 100 char/sec. Feeding output tapes into an off line teleprinter provided printed output of unbelievably awful quality at the rate of seven char/sec. (Anything more ill-adapted to producing graphic arts quality ouput is hard to imagine. Hence the need for additional hardware.)

For input, to overcome the restricted character set, an IBM typewriter was connected to a five-hole tape punch, each keystroke resulting in a pair of 5-hole characters being punched. Two ouput devices were built. A proportionately spaced IBM executive typewriter fed by a five-hole tapereader sufficed for much of the program development and testing.

At that time, most high quality typesetting involved a massive, incredibly ingenious piece of mechanical engineering provided by the Monotype Corporation. These machines provided a bewildering array of options requiring highly skilled operators. Though mostly hand driven, there was a paper tape alternative. This tape however was about three inches wide allowing 31 channels in which holes could be punched; only two-hole combinations were used.

A second output device connected a five-hole paper tape reader to a 31 channel Monotype punch. The School of Printing at the Newcastle College of Art and Industrial Design kindly provided access to their typesetters and much helpful advice for the duration of the project.

The arrival in the University, in May 1964, of an English Electric KDF9 Computer almost coincided with the termination of the first Computer Typesetting project and the start of the second, which ran for four years funded by the Ministry of Technology.

As KDF9 used eight-hole papertape, the opportunity was taken, during the conversion of the IO devices from five-hole to the eight-hole tape, to make this equipment more robust so that it was usable for small scale production rather than purely demonstration purposes. (Keith Heron, who subsequently joined the Lab staff, helped with this.) The major hardware acquisition of the new project was a vastly more convenient phototypesetter.

Interestingly, most of the programming in the second project was done in Algol60, not normally regarded as a text processing language. There was a complete change of programming staff at the end of the first project, Margaret Robson returned to her post in the Lab while James Eve departed on sabbatical leave.

The Work

Much of the project was taken up with learning about the printing industry, its practices and the many often conflicting opinions held on what constituted high quality and what was considered good or more interestingly poor style.

In fact there were two stages here. First of all we learned what printers said they did; then more slowly we discovered what they actually did. The point here is that printing equipment did not make it at all easy for for the industry members to check the extent to which they followed their own rules. Rather the reverse. The project, on the other hand, could very easily modify programs to generate accurate statistics on the performance of its typesetting algorithms. It was also fairly easy to use the programs to reset text which a printer had already set and to demonstrate that there were significant departures from their own guidlines.


The work of the first project was reported in the following papers.
  1. 'Computer typesetting: an evaluation of the problems', C.J. Duncan, J. Eve, L. Molyneux, E.S. Page and M.G. Robson, Printing Technology 7(1963)133-151.
  2. 'Look! No Hands!', C.J. Duncan, The Penrose Annual, 57(1964)121-167.
  3. 'Progress at Newcastle University', C.J. Duncan, J. Eve, L. Molyneux, E.S. Page and M.G. Robson, Proceedings, Institute of Printing Computer Typesetting Conference, London University, July 1964, pp 2-17 & 134-150.

Apart from these, there were two others which, until recently, were effectively lost.

After the typesetting projects ended, the Department of Photography became the repository for its material (internal documents, reports, slides, photographs, etc.). After John Duncan's death in 1979, there were inevitably changes in the Department of Photography (not the least of which were its name and premises). Somewhere in the transition the Computer Typesetting archive disappeared.

A few months ago, Brian Randell, while visiting a second hand book emporium in the tiny village of Ravenstonedale in Cumbria came across a copy of the Proceedings of the International Conference on Computerised Typesetting which was held on March 2 and 3, 1965, sponsored by the Committee on Composition of the Research and Engineering Council of the Graphic Arts Industry Inc., Washington, D.C. This contained two papers presented by John Duncan, one being the conference keynote address, the other being a summary of the work of the first typesetting project.

Subsequently it was discovered that Elisabeth Barraclough, though not formally associated with the project, had retained a fairly complete set of the reports of the second project (both internal reports and a number those prepared for the Ministry of Technology).

The keynote address and a sustantial extract from the second paper are reproduced here with the permission of the Research and Engineering Council of the Graphic Arts Industry Inc.

One reason for choosing to reproduce these papers is that the text, apart from the Figures, is a verbatim transcript of a stenographic record of what John said; his enthusiasm is captured (as is the occasional error which John would otherwise have corrected). In view of his comments on the future possibility of avoiding re-keyboarding by scanning documents, it should be pointed out that what follows is a minimally edited version of the result of scanning pages 7-18 and 72-79 of the conference proceedings.

It is interesting to compare John's vision, in the keynote address, of what might happen with with what has happened in the succeeding 30 years. He foresaw desktop publishing, though not its ubiquity and though John would be aware of research at Xerox at this time, it is hard to imagine anyone predicting the impact which inexpensive graphic arts quality laser printers have had.

Contents Page - 40 years of Computing at Newcastle
The First Computer Typesetting Project, 10 July 1997