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The Printer's Devil

I'm doing a lot of work on print materials these days, from posters to books to brochures, and so off I went the last couple weeks for an introduction to InDesign, the Adobe typesetting and layout program. The instructor has been in the business for 20+ years, and had a lot of typesetter's trivia and historical anecdotes to share with the class, so I figured I'd give them a wider audience.

Mind you, some of them sound like typesetter's urban legends to me, but the teacher swears they are All True....
  • Gutenberg's First Million: Johannes Gutenberg didn't make his fortune from selling printed bibles (actually he went bankrupt in that venture). No, he made his fortune selling printed indulgences. Before his movable type made it easier to create printed forms with a blank for the priest to fill in the sinner's name, each indulgence was written out by hand. When they used Gutenberg's version, he got 2% from every indulgence in that bishopric. So yes, Gutenberg invented the printed form. Bureaucrats everywhere rejoiced.
  • Points of a Quill: You may be familiar with "points" of type, as in 10 pt Times Roman or 14 pt Arial or whatever. The unit of measure comes from the early days of printing (and from Gutenberg). A scribe could use a quill pen to make about 72 ink marks per inch, so that's the unit they applied to typefaces. The unit isn't just for ink, either: the 72 pixels per inch of the Web derive from the typesetting measurement.
  • Inches and Thumbs: The inch is derived from the inch bone in your thumb, which is always 1/12th the length of your foot. It's the larger thumb bone, and makes a good approximate ruler if you need one.
  • Reading and Heartbeats: The eye is able to read tiny black marks on paper or pixels on screen because it stays very steady — and yet, the retina also requires that blood flow to it and to the very sensitive muscles that control the eye's movements. So sensitive that the eye can move in widths measured as roughly 1/10 the width of a human hair. When the muscle twitches (even just from the influx of blood in the veins), our vision blurs. So the brain compensates, and we don't read when our eye moves. Instead, those are the built in pauses in our reading.
  • Em-Spaces: These are just as silly as they sound: the width of the largest capital letter in the Roman alphabet, as wide as a capital "M".
Anyway, lots of weirdnessin the typesetting world, but I'm happy to have learned some new skills and old history. Hurray for movable type!

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