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it was covered in dust, shunted from spare room to spare room, and viewed by most as an incomprehensible piece of outdated rubbish.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.
Copyright © 2018 The Pathfoot Press
Earlier this year we advertised the first in a series of workshops collectively entitled “The 21st-Century Book Historian“. Last week it finally happened: for a long Wednesday afternoon the press room was full of doctoral students from across Scotland, learning about and participating in the processes of letterpress printing.
It was a wonderful day. We – we being the full cohort of press workers: Dawn, Kelsey, Mhairi, Bean, and Sarah – took the students through setting, make ready, pulling, and folding, using our in-progress publication of James Fraser’s account of Venice as raw material. The day concluded with a fantastic paper on material bibliography by the inimitable Jamie Cumby of St Andrews (@JECumby) followed by a brief response from Daryl Green, Librarian of Magdalen College, Oxford (@Ilikeoldbooks).
I’m pretty sure that everyone had fun and I hope that everyone came away from the day having learned something they didn’t know before (my favourite quote was from one participant who, after taking a pull on the Columbian, exclaimed, “I’ll never blame the early moderns for poor printing again!”). Certainly, us printers learned a huge amount from the experience. Not only did it push us into doing a larger, more ambitious project (the Fraser) than we’ve done before, it also encouraged us to reflect on our own practice in new ways prior to sharing that practice with the participants. The road to good printing is neither a short nor an easy one, but I hope that this workshop saw everyone a little further along it than we were before.
Going forward, we’re hoping to doing many more workshops like this (one is already planned for September and we’re currently applying for funding which might allow us to do another before that). It’s such an immense pleasure teaching the intricacies of letterpress and a great privilege to be part of an organisation that allows us to do so. Last week already saw at least one participant whose piqued interest may lead her further into the world of printing and I hope that in the long run we might be able to play some small role in igniting the interest of a new generation of Scottish letterpress printers.
Copyright © 2018 The Pathfoot Press
¶ Do you write?
¶ Would you like your writing to be printed on a traditional iron printing press?
¶ If so, submit your work to Get in Print! The Pathfoot Press, the University of Stirling’s centre for letterpress printing, is sponsoring a writing competition the three winners of which will see their work designed, typeset, and printed by hand. To enter simply:
¶ Send a piece of poetry or prose on the subject of the university experience – broadly conceived – to email@example.com no later than Friday, 2 March.
¶ Submissions should be no longer than approximately 30 lines of poetry or one A4 page of prose.
¶ Winners will be announced during the week of 12 March.
This competition has been generously sponsored in part by the Stirling Fund
The Pathfoot Press turned one year old in December 2017. It seems as if we only started it yesterday, but in that time we’ve produced seven broadsides and bifolia (besides more ephemeral productions), ran all manner of workshops, took part in the university’s fiftieth-anniversary celebrations, sent our printers to an international letterpress conference in Dublin (see the picture above), and printed the Principal’s Christmas card – a full year all told.
Looking ahead we’re excited to keep this momentum going and to continue expanding the press’s range of activities and publications. We already have a workshop-with-pamphlet planned for February and a student writing competition across the spring term, but we’re also in the process of making larger plans: applying for grants, producing longer and more complex pieces of printing, and integrating the press into research programmes of scholars across the country.
And now it’s time to order a fresh batch of Crane’s Lettra, set the print room in order, and crack on with our newest project . . . .
We were tremendously excited – and more than a little nervous! – to print Stirling Principal Gerry McCormac’s official Christmas card for 2017. The project involved doing more or less everything from scratch: we asked Stirling makar Clive Wright to compose a poem for the occasion, commissioned a swan design which was then produced as a magnesium plate by Centurion Graphics, and pulled out all the stops to produce what we think is a pretty fine card.