The Issue of Patrix Cutting in Soft Metal

The Myth of the Punchcutter;

Or, A Polemic on Patrix Cutting

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This is a bit of a rant. For a more considered presentation of the issues and evidence, go up one level to the other Notebooks within ../ The Issue of Patrix Cutting in Soft Metal. For a set of links to all of the locations on CircuitousRoot where patrix cutting is discussed, see ../../ Patrix Cutting.

In Fred Smeijers' excellent book Counterpunch (London: Hyphen Press, 1996 & 2011) he recounts an interesting story about a discussion he had with his father (who was an experienced tool and die maker) about typographical punchcutting as its story is commonly told. Smeijers, repeating this story, told his father that "no one really knows how [punches] were made." The response of his father - the tool and die maker - was telling: "he started to laugh" (pp. 14-15). His father's response was justified.

Accounts of type written today typically contain sections which treat very briefly, with an air of great authority, and with almost complete lack of accuracy the making of metal type. In particular, they misrepresent in two different ways the role of punchcutting by hand in steel.

First, it is simply not true that "no one really knows how they were made." At no point from the introduction of movable type in the 15th century to the present has there been a single moment during which there were no hand punchcutters in steel. The art was never lost. It may have become rare at times, but it never disappeared. Moreover, while punchcutting is a difficult craft, it is simply one kind of precision technical work. (This is what Smeijer's father was getting at - to a tool and die maker, a punch is perfectly reasonable thing to make.)

Second - and my real subject here - the opposition between hand punchcutting and the pantograph which dominated the writing about type-making in the early 20th century has obscured the role of what was then an even more important technology: patrix cutting in soft metal.

Reintroducing patrix cutting into the history of type does not in any way denigrate punchcutting in steel. The place of the art of cutting typographical punches by hand in steel is secure as one of the great achievements in the history of western civilization. It was an essential aspect of the set of skills and technologies associated with Gutenberg which introduced printing by movable type, and as such is a pivotal art in our history. There is no need to claim for it more than its due. Yet this is what all modern histories of type do, and in doing so they distort our idea of how type was made from the second half of the 19th century through the end of commercial metal type.

According to the standard story, hand punchcutting was the only way matrices were made from Gutenberg until Benton's pantograph engraving machines in the 1880s. So for example, writing as early as 1947, Carl Purington Rollins - printer to Yale University and one of the great authorities on type in the 20th century - first introduces hand punchcutting and then says:

"It was not until the invention of the Benton pantograph punch-cutting machine in 1885 that any other method was known." {Rollins 1948}

Similarly the great American type designer R. Hunter Middleton, writing of The Forgotten Art of the Punchcutter in 1965 says:

"Before the invention of the engraving machine all type design was finalized by the hand of the punchcutter in the medium of soft steel, hardened and driven into copper to produce the matrix needed for typecasting."

But this story is false. 1 From the introduction of matrix electroforming in 1845 through the advent of pantographic engraving techniques in the 1880s, the role hand punchcutting in steel was much reduced. 2 Instead, the originals for many text-size types and nearly all ornamental and display types were cut not in steel but in softer metal such as a lead alloy or brass. With the advent of machine engraving, this hand process simply continued as a pantographic one. 3

Harry Carter puts it this way in the notes to his 1930 translation of Fournier, though perhaps his final judgment may be disputed:

"Since the application of electrolysis to matrix-making, by Starr of Philadelphia in 1845, large letters and ornaments are always cast from deposited matrices 'grown' upon originals cut in typemetal or brass. The present practice is to cut letters larger than 14-pt. in soft metal, with a certain loss of artistic effect." (p. 40)

But Carter was unusually well informed. The other writers of the early 20th century - those whom current authors now rely upon as if they were primary sources - were a part of a romantic backlash against all machine methods in type-making. Writers such as Paul Koch (1933) rejected not only the pantograph itself but machine techniques in general. One can scarcely imagine them admitting as legitimate type made by electricity. Instead, they erased a century of type-making technology from the historical record.

Regrettably, we have even less information about cutting pattern-types or patrices in soft metal than we do about cutting punches in steel.

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