Death’s Bright Dart

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First Electronically Composed Book

One of the perennial problems that publishers confronted in the days of analog printing technology was how to handle potential reprints or new editions. If the original book had been set in metal type, it was possible to keep the type “standing” for a later printing, but that tied up a very valuable asset, since type was expensive and usually in short supply. The invention of stereotyping eliminated the need to keep the original type, but the printer still needed space to store the large lead stereotype plates. Even with the development of flat offset plates that could be stored compactly, a printer might have hundreds of collections of such plates awaiting a publisher’s decision to reprint or not. In the case of a book that needed to be entirely reset and/or redesigned, there was no choice but to recompose the entire text.

This book represents the first digital solution to both problems. In the case of this novel, for which a new American edition was needed, the original English edition was scanned using a prototype OCR system developed by Mergenthaler Linotype. According to a technical note at the end of the book, this new system was “the first to be capable of reading intermixed, proportionally-spaced and uncontrolled typography. The author’s words then were re-formatted by an IBM 360 computer into a completely new typographical style, with Americanized spelling and punctuation.” In other words, “for the first time, the entire composition of a book has been created by machines – rather than by man utilizing machines.” Just by way of comparison with today’s computing systems, the 1960s/70s vintage IBM 360 was the size of a large refrigerator and might have as much as 256K of main storage, with tape systems providing more, as needed.

typesetting, book design