Thursday, August 03, 2006

Before Desktop Publishing

While helping my wife clean the garage this evening, I discovered a box filled with technical documentation--some of which I wrote--that immediately took me back to the days before desktop publishing.

I entered publishing through the production department, setting type, doing paste-up, and proofreading advertising, newspapers, magazines, books, and just about anything else that could be printed. Although I initially worked on some smaller phototypsetting systems such as Compugraphic and strike-on systems such as the IBM Composer, I ultimately "mastered" the Penta System--a multiple terminal typesetting sytem running on Data General computer hardware--first as a typesetter and then as a systems manager. I wrote complex typesetting "programs" utilizing Penta's typesetting language and I wrote systems programs in Data General's RDOS language and, later, their AOS/VS language.

At one point I was so good at what I did that I was a panelist at the annual convention of the Penta Users Group, that some of the things I created were shared with Penta users other than my immediate employer, and I consulted with other companies (McDonnell-Douglas, among them). I job-hopped my way up the ladder from typesetter to systems manager to shift supervisor to department manager and so on.

Desktop publishing made most of my skills obsolete almost overnight. I was lucky that I was employed in a supervisory/managerial position with one plant of a multi-national printing company just dipping its toes into desktop publishing when it exploded, and I was there to oversee the desktop publishing department's transition from a Macintosh, a PC, and an imagesetter to a department with multiple Macs, multiple PCS, and multiple imagesetters. I traveled around the country helping the plant's clients make the transition to desktop publishing and training the plant's clients in best practices for submitting files to the printing plant.

Somewhere along the way I shot my career in the foot. After a few more job changes, I found myself managing a prepress company/service bureau at a time when prepress companies and service bureaus were disappearing at an alarming rate. Shortly after the turn of the century, all three of the prepress companies/service bureaus in the city where I live either went out of business or were absorbed into printing companies.

Seeing computer printouts of coding--dozens of pages of single-spaced coding--I wrote that made a computer do an extremely specific task still impresses me. Seeing the pages upon pages of technical documentation I wrote to explan to others what the programs did and how to use them impresses me as well.


Because I am not that person today.

I can no longer do those things...and there's no longer a need for me to.

On the other hand, the wealth of knowledge I gained on the production side of the fence has been a tremendous boon to my freelance career. While I freelance as a writer and editor, many times the opportunities presented to me require more than wordsmithing. I'm called upon to write the brochure...and then to design it and prepare it for the printer using desktop publishing programs such as Pagemaker, QuarkXPress, and InDesign.

Alas, I'm unlikely to ever attain a skill level with desktop publishing comparable to what I once had with Penta Systems, but it isn't for lack of effort.

And, after looking through the entire box of material, I pulled out a stack of paper about half an inch thick and dumped the rest in the trash bin.

I need space in the garage for something else I'll try to save way beyond its useful life.


Graham said...

Amazing how things used to get done. I once had a boss who programmed in PostScript.

And by coincidence, just last night I downloaded a freeware DT program that automates a lot of what you had to do by hand.

Anonymous said...

I remember the Data General Nova 4C, Dasher, Linotron 202/W (with graphics subsystem) and a LogE RC paper processor.

The combination commands looked something like this: [cc45,1,10,12] which was a line length of 45 picas, position 1 for font size of 10 with a leading of 12 or [fy45,3,18,24] which would get you Helvetica Bold in 18 pt. on 24 lead.

Much faster/easier than operating a VGC PhotoTypositor!

-Former Penta Systems Manager

Michael Bracken said...

Those were the days when typesetting was a skill and typesetters knew the difference between quote marks and inch marks. Now that typesetting is something that can be done by anyone with enough money to buy a personal computer and page layout software, much of the responsibility for producing typeset material has fallen into the hands of the uneducated and untrained.


I worked with a variety of typesetting equipment and systems back in the day, and I must say I liked the Penta System the best.