image link-topic-sf0.jpg

1. Because It's Fun

This is an important reason, because this hobby involves altogether too much heavy lifting for something that isn't fun. But I'm having a grand time. Since I became seriously involved with typefounding and letterpress printing in late 2008 there hasn't been a day in which I haven't done something related to it (if only reading or thinking). Yet each day I'm becoming more interested in it.

2. To Document It

This is the serious reason, and indeed I do think that it is serious.

All technological artifacts are in the end destroyed, and complex ones are usually destroyed pretty quickly. Industries are scrapped, museums are bombed, and things are simply thrown away because people don't care to understand.

The knowledge of how to make things is lost even more quickly than the things themselves. Technological civilization may seem strong, but in reality it is exceptionally fragile. Preindustrial civilizations are durable and may be passed on by oral tradition. Skip even a generation - a decade or two of not caring - and technology is lost.

The pattern (barring the complete destruction of the civilization, which happens often enough) is always the same: The technology is replaced by a newer one. The bulk of the old machines are scrapped very, very quickly. A few are kept around by a few holdouts, curmudgeons, and sentimentalists who keep using them. Having been told that this old technology is worthless, and having seen it discarded, too often they believe that it is worthless. Too often nobody even asks them about it. When they die, this knowledge dies with them. A few old books may survive, but the books never had everything. A few machines may survive - fewer if they're heavy or complicated or both - but the machines are cold and dead without the knowledge.

These technologies are saved for the future (when they are saved at all) by perhaps slightly crazed enthusiasts. It's happened with blacksmithing, with artisan ceramics, with papermaking, with wood engraving, and any number of other fields. It hasn't happened just as often - but we've forgotten most of those fields.

We are within a few years of losing the basic knowledge of linecasting, and to a lesser extent all of the processes of making and using relief printing type. Only a very few years remain before the last old linecasting shops holding out are scrapped to get at the profit of the land they're sitting on. Only a few more years remain while the old guys are still around to share their knowledge. It hurts to see this. Loss and often wanton destruction of fine things is always hard. Still, I'm grateful that I have the opportunity to help preserve it.

My goal, then, is straightforward (though not simple): to acquire as large a respresentative sampling of this technology as my limited resources permit, to learn to use it and learn to fix it, to preserve through reproduction as much of the surviving documentation as is legally possible, to learn from those who grew up with this technology as much as I can, and most of all to write it all down and publish it, online, freely, in the hope that it might be preseved.

In 500 years every linecasting and typecasting machine we have now will have been destroyed. My hope is that if by some chance these CircuitousRoot "Notebooks" survive that someone then will be able to recreate it all from the preserved knowledge alone.

3. Process vs. Product

This is a sort of simultaneous answer to "So, what do you want to print" and "Are you going to write a book about it someday?" (The simple answer to the first question is "I don't care" - which puzzles real printers to no end. The simple answer to the second question is "I already am" - which puzzles everyone else.)

I have come to realize that while most people in Western (or at least American) culture are driven by products, I am not. I have many things, true, but the things themselves aren't my goal. I am driven not by product, but by process; not by the thing, but by the making of the thing. (The proof of this is to realize the one "thing" that I have the least of: finished projects.)

So I don't care what I print, because I'm not in this to be a printer. I'm in it to learn about type-making and type-using.

So also I could never write a book because I'd never finish it. I'd always be messing about learning more about this process or that process, and since the overall process of writing a book is, well, a process, I'd be more interested in creating the book than in finishing it.

The solution is to write a set of online "Notebooks," as I am doing here. They'll never be finished, but insofar as the process of creating them documents the processes of type-making, they may be useful nonetheless.

4. Distractions

I'm very easily distracted (there are just too many interesting things in life), and if I don't keep extensive notes, I'm lost. However, the objects of my distraction tend to circulate within a fairly small compass. I entertain hopes that I may someday finish some of them, if only I take sufficient notes along the way. These Notebooks are the result.

5. Art and Technology

Actually, I've been doing this all along - I just didn't know it. I've had an interest in typography since about 1980 (thanks (I think) to Douglas Hofstadter). I wrote a dissertation that was trying to be halfway between technology and art. Indeed, I've tried always to occupy a position halfway between technology and art.

It just took me a quarter of a century to realize that one of the places where technology and art meet most concisely is at the casting surface of the type matrix. Without art, it isn't worth doing. Without technology, it can't be done at all.

6. The Research Niche

Given activity in any field, an honorable participant will seek to contribute something to it. I'm not really very good at most things. I'll never be a good printer - I just don't have the designer's eye for it. I'm not even a very good mechanic, much as I love machines.

I am really very good at research, though. This is all research. It is the one place in the world of printing and type-making where I can make a contribution of some worth.

7. It All Seems to Fit

Somehow, there seems to be a serendipity between fields going on. I've always been interested in many things, but these things tend to be similar - often involving complex antiquarian machinery.

For example, in the late 1980s I discovered the century-old field of Model Engineering. It is a vibrant and engaging field, and still a great interest of mine. A few years ago I was at a model engineering show and saw some wonderful work by a guy named Roy Rice. Fast-forward to the present, and all of a sudden I discover that he's not just a model engineer, but also a hand typefounder. Things like this keep popping up.

I developed an interest in microscopes and photography a few years back, as well as machine tools. I'm going to need all of these in researching type-making: camera, microscope, photomicrographs, etc.

Two decades ago I bought a copy of the big 1923 ATF Specimen Book, simply because it was cool. It is fortunate that I did so then, because I could never afford a copy at today's prices!

This year I happened to go through a box of papers packed up twenty years earlier. I'd forgotten entirely that I was writing homebrew typograhic software back then, but I was.

It's all fitting together.

8. Fairy Gold

In folklore, the traveller to the lands of Faerie learns to his or her dismay that the gifts given there are unreliable. Upon return to the Real World, the gold and jewels and fine works turn out to be nothing more than brambles and wasps' nests and dry leaves.

It strikes me that I'm doing the opposite. Every so often, I leave our home and journey into the Real World. There I gather up a few of its brambles, wasps' nests, and dry leaves. I bring them back home, and here they become gold and fine works.

Select Resolution: 0 [other resolutions temporarily disabled due to lack of disk space]