Monday, February 06, 2012

It’s called a line gauge

Here’s something that most of you have never seen and very few have actually linegaugeused.

It’s a printer’s line gauge – a tool printers used back in the days when printing was done with Linotype machines casting lines of type in lead.

Yes, children, that’s how printing was done when I was a young man starting out in the newspaper business in 1966.

Fonts were (and still are) measured in points. There are 72 points to the inch. Back when I worked at The Indianapolis News, our body type was 8 points, set on a 10-point slug. That meant there were 2 points of breathing room between lines of type.

The next most common unit of measure was the pica and there are six picas to an inch, which is why every sixth pica is highlighted on the line gauge. Column widths were measured in picas.

The other side of the line gauge shows inches and agate lines. Agate is the type used for classified and legal ads in the back of the paper. There are 14 agate lines to an inch.

Back in the days of hot type – it was called hot type because the type was cast from molten lead – printing was a craft. It’s pretty much a lost art these days since computers have taken most of the skill out of it. Anybody can create a facsimile of the printed page on a computer without giving any thought to whether they want their text to look like this with what you call a ragged right margin,

or like this with what you call justified type – that is type that has the words spaced within the line to make a straight margin on the right side of the column. The advantage to ragged right is that you hardly ever need to break words with hyphens, which makes the text easier to read.

Newspapers favor justified type because it makes for a clean line of white space (called the gutter) between the columns of type and is a more efficient use of ink.

Line gauges are probably more scarce than slide rules (I still have one or two of those around here somewhere). This one lives on my desk. It’s 12 inches of stainless steel and was made by the New England Newspaper Supply Co. of Millbury, Mass.

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