As of yesterday, the Columbian and the Adana have some new company in the press room. Around the same time that our press room plant was purchased in the 1970s, the pioneering bibliographers of the newly-founded University of Stirling also bought one of the rarest and most remarkable pieces of book historical technology ever made: a Hinman Collator. Decades later, however, the knowledge of what the Collator was and why the university owned it had almost vanished; it was covered in dust, shunted from spare room to spare room, and viewed by most as an incomprehensible piece of outdated rubbish. Things came to a head when its then resting place was needed for office space. Perhaps we could donate it to a museum, one person proposed, while others suggested we simply scrap this ugly and useless relic.
Mercifully, that didn’t happen. Hasty e-mail negotiations led to the Collator finding a new home, at the eleventh hour, in the premises of the Pathfoot Press. In between student meetings yesterday afternoon I began to clean and repair its viewing stands and now it sits happily ensconced between a workbench covered in formes and drying piles of letterpress and the publishing students’ computers, laden with the latest in design software.
But what is a Hinman Collator and why is it so important? In short, it’s a device which allows for the rapid comparison of two near-identical texts – say, for example, two copies of the same letterpress book – and the quick identification of any variations between the two. That hardly captures it significance, however. In the words of its historian, Steven Escar Smith, “The Hinman Collator represents one of the most important applications of technology to the study of literature ever made”.
Its origins lie in the work of Charlton Hinman (1911-1977), an American literary scholar and naval cryptologist. Frustrated with the agonisingly slow process of collating letterpress texts, he recalled the military practice of overlaying aerial photographs to identify the movement of enemy forces or similar changes in the landscape. Could a similar principle be applied to textual collation? By 1947 he had developed a prototype constructed from a “pair of ordinary microfilm projectors (borrowed from the Navy), some pieces of wooden apple box (abstracted from a trash pile), some heavy cardboard (begged from the Folger bindery), and parts of a rusty Erector set (more or less hi-jacked from the small son of a close personal friend).”
This Rube Goldberg machine of a collator was then put to work in Hinman’s ongoing studies of the Shakespeare First Folio. In 1963 he reported his results in The Printing and Proof-Reading of the First Folio of Shakespeare in which the vastly-increased ease of collation provided by his invention allowed him to break new ground in understanding how Shakespeare’s work had evolved as it came off the press in 1623. His researches with the collator underlie all modern editions of Shakespeare and inspired the production a further fifty-eight copies of the machine, most of which were purchased by university libraries but a few of which were given over to more esoteric purposes: identifying forged banknotes, catching errors in pharmaceutical labelling, or government intelligence-gathering, to name a few.
The last Hinman Collator was built in 1978, a year after Hinman’s death. When a census was taken in 2002, only forty-one of the original fifty-nine machines survived and only six of those were in Europe. As such, Stirling’s Collator is a remarkably rare survival of the golden age of bibliography and is, as we now proudly tell visitors, “the most northerly Hinman Collator in the world”.
We’re determined to make full use of this important cultural artefact. Already, we have an editing workshop planned for September (stay tuned for details) which will demonstrate its use as a still-relevant collation tool and we hope to offer more events surrounding it in the future. For any bibliographers wishing to have access to a Hinman Collator, please contact us. We would be delighted to facilitate your use of our machine in whatever ways we can.
And so, from almost becoming a casualty of the efficiency-minded modern university, the Collator has been saved – at least for a time – and may yet have its uses in the production of new and important scholarly editions. The Pathfoot Press is proud to offer it a new home, as a mark of its central role in the modern reception and understanding of traditional letterpress printing.
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