Some knowledge is lost forever when the need for it is gone. We can mourn that as much as we like, but it is part and parcel of the complicated historical forces we bundle into the concept of progress. The more baroque or obscure the activity, the less likely it is to persist over time, and the more associated knowledge lost.
Many guilds spent hundreds of years refining knowledge and keeping it a mystery. Only initiates would gain the secrets, and they spent years apprenticing and working as itinerants before becoming masters, with all the interest of keeping everything exactly the same as it ever was.
Printing with movable type, Gutenberg’s great innovation (in the West), evolved along guild lines and transitioned neatly into industrialization. There was a fair amount of manual labor in creating the raw materials for publishing (metals for type and presses; rags and pulp for paper; compounds and chemicals for inks), but the ecosystem of printing required absurd amounts of specialization. Someone who spent years learning a finely gradated trade couldn’t be replaced at a moment’s notice.
To take one example, a type foundry that produced the kind of durable metal type for letterpress printing had several dozen different specialties divided into separate departments. Like everything associated with letterpress, type foundries went through massive changes starting in the 1880s when hot-metal typesetting was perfected until the last large-scale firm, the near-monopolist American Type Founders closed its last foundry in the 1980s.
Fritz Swanson wrote “The Last Man for the Job,” about a still-operational type foundry in America, for The Believer, a McSweeney’s magazine, in late 2011. It’s a wonderful article that explains the specialization and the change in the industry. (Fritz will one day write for this fine publication as well; his own printing work is keeping him busy.)
The last man of the title, Theo Rehak, founded the Dale Guild Type Foundry on the figurative remains of ATF. Rehak learned as much as he could working at ATF in its last days, but obtained perhaps a fraction of the knowledge of the workers there, many of whom had no interest in sharing their mysteries.1 He brought in two adepts to take over Dale Guild, but the partnership has split, and the remaining owner, Micah Slawinski-Currier, plans to shed a lot of gear to move it from Rehak’s grounds in New Jersey to a new location in Salt Lake City. In April, Slawinski-Currier wrote:
While [Dale Guild]’s tradition lies in American Type Founders, I feel it is time to create a new tradition for type founding. One based on education and instruction to keep the most important part alive, the knowledge.
Expertise dies forever when the people who acquire it train no successors, through lack of interest or orneriness. It is like when the last surviving speakers of a language die. We like to think, perhaps, that we live in the future in which all knowledge gained is never lost. It’s simply not the case. Some people spend years or their entire lives trying to rediscover lost arts, especially surrounding tool and weapon making; others, to preserving the fragmentary skills still passed on. Some things lost can never be regained.
In this issue, we look at different angles on technologies that have seen their time come and go — typewriters, letterpress printing, wood type, typesetting, and sound recording — and how they have persisted in reduced, preserved forms as the functional necessity disappeared. No one needs to use letterpress to produce a book today; yet, it is still employed, in bits and pieces, to achieve a specific aesthetic look that can only be mimicked, never replicated exactly using fully modern means. In some cases, as our writers describe, the Internet and electronics have allowed older tech to survive.
Manjula Martin visits John Vanderslice, the owner of a studio full of analog mixing and recording equipment that’s in great demand for the sounds that can be coaxed out, distinct from any digital tools available. In “Flaws and All,” we learn that Vanderslice is a serious musician and producer, but he doesn’t scoff at technology. It has its place at Tiny Telephone, his studio, and that place is nowhere close to handling sound.
In Australia, Richard Moss visits Tom Koska, known as Typewriter Tom, in “Carriage Return.” Tom is one of the last people in Australia — and the world — who can repair a large variety of typewriters. He’s thinking of hanging up his tool belt soon.
While letterpress printing nearly died, it’s in the midst now of a small-scale revival in many cities. Nancy Gohring in “Inkheart” looks into the microcosm of Seattle, where Carl Montford and a small group of aficionados kept the flame of knowledge alive during dark days. A combination of old and new technology allows this form of printing to survive.
When she was a child in Scotland, Carolyn Roberts watched her mother painstakingly assemble a magazine, while, every morning, her father went off to his job as a compositor. Times change, and she reminds us of the good and bad of that in “The Paste-Up.”
Jacqui Cheng visits Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the site of another near-monopoly in the creation of type in America for “Wood Stock.” A museum built out of the remnants of the wood-type industry preserves the past and teaches the future. The museum has found bottomless interest among younger people who discover its existence via the Internet and a documentary film and who now want to learn about wood type and how to print with it.
You can find large photosets at our Flickr account of Nancy’s visit to Carl’s shop, Richard’s visit to Typewriter Tom, and Jacqui’s trip to Two Rivers, Wisconsin; and at Manjula’s Flickr account of her trip to Tiny Telephone.
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You guys are great
Really, you are. There’s something wonderful about the way the world works right now that managing editor Brittany Shoot and I can be laboring away in Seattle and San Francisco (and, all too briefly, on respective family vacations 12 time zones apart in Hawaii and Denmark), and connect with all of you all over the world. Your continuous, constructive feedback keeps all the hard work feeling worthwhile. Letters, tweets, iTunes reviews, and the rest: it’s appreciated.
One example: Chris, a reader in Korea, alerted me a few weeks ago because he couldn’t download an issue over the cell network nor get the Web site to work. But he tried his home wired connection and he had no problems. With his help, we narrowed it down to a DNS server, not our Web site, being unreachable. Thanks, Chris! (I contacted my DNS host, which could not be made to understand the problem. I now have a new DNS host.)
Likewise, whenever you have a glitch with the app or the Web site, the fact that you care enough to let us know is very gratifying. Work on revisions to the iOS app is well underway with near-term and long-term modifications in the works, and feature suggestions and bug reports are all taken into consideration.
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On “Weight for It”
A number of readers outside of the United States were stunned that we Yanks were still relying on volume instead of weight. Steve, for instance, wrote:
I must admit I read “Weight for it” with a certain incredulity. Living in Scotland I’ve only occasionally come across U.S.-style recipes based on volume and had to struggle to convert them to mass. It hasn’t ever occurred to me that this would be the norm somewhere. To see scales described as a rare novelty is actually quite alien to many readers.
Once you’ve all got used to scales you can move on to the metric system and all the advantages that brings to scaling up recipes and converting units.
As an English follower of US food blogs who grudgingly invested in measuring cups a few years ago, I found the whole premise of this article pretty hilarious. I never thought baking would be the most plainly US-centric subject in The Magazine!
The idea of using cups as a measurement for everything in American recipes has always seemed somewhat absurd, yet a little intriguing to me as a German. We have always used scales or measuring cups, as dry ingredients are given in grams, and liquids in ml. I have yet to acquire a set of cups-measurements for my kitchen, and it seems like the longer I wait, the less I’m likely to need it…Hurray for progress!
A dissenting view arrived from Joshua:
I really enjoyed reading this and as a British cook, I was always surprised by the cup system. That said I disagree with the need for precision in the kitchen. Baking aside, having no measurements allows you to develop your own taste and interpretation of the dish.
Following recipes very strictly never allowed me to really develop a love for cooking. Then I read Elisabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking, which takes a rather laissez-faire approach to cooking, and then I fell in love. Different approaches for different people of course, but I’d never swap a pinch or a dash or a pour for 5g, 100ml or any other specific metric.
On “Parental Controls”
My parents have adopted a similar “strategy” as you have (sorta). I have a MacBook Pro and iPad mini, and obviously it isn’t banned. They have, however, enabled parental controls on them. I cannot play video games, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are blocked, and certain categories of sites are blocked. I’m fifteen now, and overall I am okay with it.
There was one major consequence of their efforts though, and that is they restricted them way too much when I was younger. On my then-new black MacBook HTTPS was blocked, and so was Google “back in the day.” Naturally, my eight-year-old mind wanted to know why so many things were blocked, so I asked them. Sex was something I was totally unaware of, and they wisely kept it from me. “It’s just because we want to keep you safe,” they told me.
Sadly, I think most people will not accept this answer. I sure didn’t, and within a few weeks I had successfully reset the password for the NetNanny app, which my parents used at the time. I then tried the web again, and saw that I had been missing (although I thankfully didn’t stumble upon porn). Of course they found out, and they put it back on. I was upset about this, and for years I held a small grudge against them for locking me down so much. We had a constant game of they-install-software, I-crack-said-software, I-lose-my-stuff.
That being said, I think making your child aware of what’s out there is a good idea before installing parental controls, and I think over restricting them is a bad idea. It will backfire in the end.
For a moment there, I thought you guys moved to Manhattan in New York.
This was one of my favourite pieces I’ve read in The Magazine yet, mainly because after a recent move, I decided to downsize and get rid of stuff which was essentially for decoration. And as a lifelong hoarder that was quite a move. Definitely not at this stage yet but by the time I make the next move, I certainly hope to be.
On “Staying Power” in Issue 18
While I enjoyed John’s review of Dog 1.0 very much, I must point out one typo in the text “and we just purchased new rugs, for the love of god.” That would be “for the love of dog.” Would it not.
I note the review unit was a Dog 1.0 Poodle white. I have had for 13 years now a Dog 1.2 Border Collie black/white/brown that came with upgraded software and continues to function as intended in a quiet manner. I also have a newer model Dog 1.2 Border Collie black/white 3 1/2 years old with the same upgraded software except for a bug in the volume control.
Oh, and then there is Cat 3.5 which we will leave for another conversation.
Photo of Dale Guild type in this article by your faithful editor and publisher. Cover photo by Jacqui Cheng; designed by Louie Mantia.
Glenn Fleishman is the editor and publisher of The Magazine, and contributes reguarly to the Economist, Boing Boing, TidBITS, and Macworld. The father of two, Glenn won two episodes of Jeopardy! in 2012, and he won't let you forget it.