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Monday 19 January 2015

Varityper's Century of Typesetting

An early Hammond beside its big, fat great-great-great-great grandson, a Varityper Headliner 820
When AM (the former Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation) Varityper launched its last composition systems in 1980, it boasted of "a typesetting heritage than spans 100 years". In dating its history back to 1880, AM Varityper was referring to the Varityper's origins as a Hammond typewriter, which had made a gold medal-winning debut when the New Orleans World's Fair (aka the World's Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition) opened on December 16, 1884. As things turned out, AM Varityper didn't quite make the century mark.
While, aided by the advent of its Varityper computer-fronted phototypsetting systems, AM International earned $5.8 million on sales of $909.6 million in 1980, it suffered severe losses in the next two years. On April 14, 1982, the company filed for bankruptcy in the Northern District of Illinois under Chapter 11, which permits reorganisation under the bankruptcy laws of the United States. But after workers at its 50-year-old plant at 1200 Babbitt Road, Euclid, north of Cleveland, refused a $6 an hour wage reduction in August, AM International closed the plant in October.
AMI, which also included Multilith, had already sold Addressograph to DBS in November 1981 and its bankruptcy was confirmed in September 1984. But an offshot, Multigraphics, emerged from Chapter 11 in September 1993, only to be bought by A.B.Dick in 1999. In 1986 Datacard bought DBS for $52 million and the Addressograph name lived on as a part of NewBold.
Meanwhile, AM International sold the Varityper brand name to Tegra, which as Tegra-Varityper in April 1994 became part of a company called PrePress Solutions, when PrePress Solutions acquired the assets of Tegra, Varityper and PrePress Direct following bankruptcy. This outfit dropped the Varityper name and renamed its imagesetters Panther.
A PrePress Solutions Panther platesetter
If one thing might tenuously link the Hammond typewriter of 1884 to the last machine called a Varityper in 1994, at least in name, it would be the ease with which typefaces could be changed. In which case, the "heritage" might be extended even further back, to John Jonathan Pratt's Pterotype of 1864, since the rights to its key component, the single type element, were sold to Hammond.
 The last AM Varityper compositing-editing system
Note the modem under the telephone in the "telecommunications option". Also, 80K RAM!
According to a special Spring 2008 edition of the Museum of Printing News, covering non-metal typesetting, "The term 'Cold Type' was first applied to the three devices that used typewriters for typographic composition: the Varityper, the Justowriter and the IBM Composer. The Varityper was based on the Hammond typewriter, one of the first to have proportional type. Based in New Jersey, the company was taken over by Ralph Coxhead, who introduced a companion headline-setting machine with a plastic 'Gramaphone record' as its font. It was called the Coxheadliner and later just Headliner."
The Museum of Printing's claims are only partially true. Hammond, for most part based in New York, did not have a typewriter with proportional type - right-side justification came under Coxhead's post-1933 development of the manual Varityper.  As Richard Polt points out in his Classic Typewriter Page "Typewriter Spotlight" on the Varityper, "Right-margin justification was achieved by a mechanical system in which each line would have to be typed twice. It sounds tedious, but it was a clever solution to a challenging mechanical problem - although the results were not comparable to professional [Linotype] typesetting." (PS: A comment on Richard's Varityper spotlight page says it was the IBM Selectric Composer, not the PC, which spelt the end for the Varityper. "[It] allowed the copy to be typed once, versus Varityper's twice [and] the use of a magnetic tape cartridge allowed real editing.") 
The very young Robert White Wirtz (1913-1983)
More importantly, it was not Coxhead but leading US mathematics educator Robert White Wirtz who invented the system from which the Varityper Headliner eventually emerged. All subsequent Varityper patents for the photocomposing machine acknowledged Wirtz's 1955 design for the so-called "Gramophone record", the phototypographical matrix. Ralph Cramer Coxhead died on February 7, 1951, long before the matrix was fully developed:
Wirtz, the younger brother of US Secretary of Labor William Willard Wirtz, told the Daily Illini in October 1962 that he had been the director of research and engineering for the Varityper division of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation.
Charles Winfred Norton's "typing and justifying" Varityper
But his work on the Headliner started long before that.
Between 1944-46, Charles Winfred Norton (1889-), working for Coxhead in West Orange, New Jersey, had applied "justifying lines" to the Varityper, enabling it to complete its transition from an out-and-out typewriter in 1926 to a genuine typesetting machine by 1947, when it was used to set body matter for the Chicago Daily Tribune.
Independently of this, from 1950 Wirtz was working on his photocomposing machine in Peoria, Illinois.
It's interesting to note that while it was a mathematician, Donald Ervin Knuth (1938-)  who was a pioneer in the field of digital typesetting - the process which ended the short life of photocomposing - it was a mathematics educator, Wirtz, who led the way in photocomposing.
Wirtz's original photocomposing concept
At an early stage of his work in the field, Wirtz signalled his plan to incorporate the Varityper typewriter in his system:
All this while Wirtz had been assigning his patents to a "co-partnership" called the Wirtz Company, variously based in Peoria, Illinois, in the early 1950s, Plainfield, New Jersey, in the mid-50s and finally, in the early 1960s, Watchung, New Jersey. By the late 50s he had caught the attention of the Addressograph-Multigraph Corporation and was recruited to continue his work on behalf of its Varityper division.
Addressograph-Multigraph had taken over Varityper by the middle of 1958, two to three years earlier than stated elsewhere on the Internet.
Wirtz, born the son of a high school principal in Canton, Illinois, on August 20, 1913, was raised in DeKalb, graduated from Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and went on to study at Northwestern University in Evanston and the University of Chicago, gaining degrees in science and education.
He then taught at Evanston before joining Varityper. His first foray into designing had been in 1948 with, of all things, a shoe toe creaser!
In 1962 Wirtz returned to academia and joined the mathematics team funded by the National Science Foundation at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He said that with Sputnik, mathematicians had become "much in demand" after years of being "locked away in their ivory towers". Wirtz, who developed the Tens Frame for maths teaching in 1980, wrote nine books on maths teaching, including Mathematics for Everyone (1974).
Wirtz's brother, W. Willard Wirtz (above, 1912-2010) also attended Northern Illinois University and graduated from Harvard Law School in 1937. He was immediately appointed to the faculty of the University of Iowa College of Law. He was a professor of law at Northwestern University from 1939-42 and served with the War Labor Board from 1943-45, and was chairman of the National Wage Stabilization Board in 1946. Wirtz returned to teach law at Northwestern until 1954. He was active in Democratic politics and wrote speeches for Adlai Stevenson during his 1952 presidential campaign. Wirtz was appointed Under-Secretary of Labor in 1961As the Secretary of Labor between 1962-69 under the administrations of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, Wirtz supported collective bargaining and championed department programs aimed at the young, under-educated, long-term unemployed and older workers. In conjunction with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he implemented anti-discrimination responsibilities for the department.  At the time of his death he was the oldest living former cabinet member and the last surviving member of the Kennedy administration cabinet.
After Coxhead's death in 1951, his corporation lived on until its takeover by AM in 1958.  In 1955, Bently Pratt Raak's redeveloped Varityper emerged; it was a considerable change from the Norton-designed machine.
A very young Bently Raak
Coxhead had bought type designer Frederic William Goudy's estate in 1948 and Raak (1904-78), who had worked for Coxhead since 1937, had had a close working relationship with Goudy. In the mid-50s Raak, a professor of typographical design at Syracuse University's School of Journalism, also worked with Edward Harris Billet on a elaborate automatic camera apparatus for Varityper, a photocomposing machine which would be superseded by Wirtz's Headliner.
But it was Raak's 1962 design - just after Wirtz had left Varityper - that would be (almost) the last word on the Varityper Headliner:
Between 1950-62, Wirtz took out 12 patents related to the Headliner. These were for proportional spacing and justifying mechanisms, photocomposing machines, code bar control for type indexing, card handling, mechanical and electrical indexing and direct image composing. Some of these were referenced by Kroy Industries of St Paul, Minneapolis, for its own typesetting machine (one of which, below, is owned by Typospherian Ted Munk).
 Kroy Industries patent drawing. Compare this with an early Wirtz design:
Wirtz died in Camel, California, on September 23, 1983, a month after his 70th birthday.
Wirtz's Varityper Headliner made camera-ready masters for offset printing, created by casting photographic type on 35mm white photo print paper, which was then automatically fed through an integral tank with photo printing chemicals (and sometimes became jammed there!). The Headliner was an adjunct to the AM Varityper itself, technically regarded as a strike-on composing machine. The Varityper used once-only carbon ribbon, and when typed on special super white paper gave a very sharp image. Its type sizes ranged from six-point to 12-point, hence the need for the Headliner, which set headlines in 12 to 90 point. Page compositions, including illustrations, were transferred photographically to Multilith masters and reproduced on Multilith Offset duplicators. 
From 1966 Varityper "pursued aggressively a wide range of direct impression typography and phototypesetting products to serve better the needs for type composition". This line lasted until 1978, when Varityper stopped making the typewriter-like direct impression (strike-on composing) machines. At that point AM's transition to microprocessor-based phototypesetting technology was complete. By 1985 AMI's Varityper division was supplying "computer-based phototypesetters, terminals and composition systems."
Among the more interesting applications for the Varityper Headliner were (in a smaller version) for blueprint lettering, as well as the model 820 by the Isolated Children's Special Education Unit in Australia, and by record companies such as Columbia for vinyl record labels.
Comparing the size of the Varityper Headliner
A close look at the Varityper Headliner
The smaller model was used for blueprint lettering.
The paper strip is in the red drum


Richard P said...

Fabulous research. I'm going to add a link to this page from my Varityper spotlight. Thanks!

Don Lampert said...

Thanks Robert for completing the story. A long and interesting one!
A friend and I are looking for a varityper - the more classic typewriter type - we're curious to actually see it in operating. Almost as cool as watching my soon to be operating Teletype 15, and 19 units do their "over the wire" typewriting

shordzi said...

I had to read this several times in order to grasp all the information of this rich article. How amazing! This definitely opens a new horizon for the later history of the Hammond, and its off-springs. I own a Varityper 610, and keep discovering how it works.

Eric Rowland said...

I was surprised to find this site. Brings back many memories. I was the Varityper area engineer for Ireland in the late sixties, and traveled the length and breadth of the country servicing these machines. Before that, I was employed at the Manchester (UK) service branch after completing a 3 month's intensive training course in London. Happy days, indeed.

Emil enginger said...

I worked for varityper for 7 years 1964 to 1971. I worked on the headliner machines. They launched the 820 and the 840 models during that time. Reading this great article took me back to those years. I became the youngest inline tester in company's history. Enjoyed the article. Emil engineer. Email: thank you

Anonymous said...

In 1968 I was a service tech for the Chicago Varityper branch. While servicing a machine in downtown Chicago I found the ribbon take-up motor burned out so I changed it. The new motor immediately burned out in a puff of smoke. When I changed that motor, it's replacement also burned out. At that point I was out of take-up motors. When I returned to the office I mentioned this to a fellow service tech who immediately burst out laughing. It seems the machine was in the Monadnock building, one of the few remaining downtown building using DC electricity. While the machine itself had a AC/DC motor, the take-up motor was AC only. I was one of many techs who had burned up motors on this machine.
Nick Zohfeld

Tony Marine said...

Do you happen to have any of the font catalogs for this machine? I've seen some of the discs for sale, and instead of listing font names, they have reference numbers. I found one book online which showed the font and corresponding reference number, but it was from the 1940's. I'm looking for later editions.

Unknown said...

Fascinating read, thanks for the effort involved. Have never seen a Varityper for sale - I wonder that we ever got many out here? Haven't found anything on that topic yet.

Bruce Devido said...

Wow Nostalgic.. I worked at A M Varityper from 1984 to 1995 and watched it go from being fully made on Mt Pleasant Ave in E.Hanover NJ to the JIT method where we outsourced the making of individual components and just did the final assy in NJ. I was a senior tech that tested and troubleshot the pc boards. eventually we opened a facility in Massachusetts when Tegra took over. Those were the best years of my life that I now miss dearly.

Bruce Devido

Unknown said...

I worked in the Credit, Order Processing and lastly the Export department at AM Varityper in East Hanover from 1978 to 1994. The plant employed about 2000 people when I started and was cut to about 350 when I left. AM had dealers and subsidiaries worldwide. At its peak exports accounted for about a third of Varityper's revenue. Sadly, the main office and plant on about 14 acres was abandoned in the late nineties and torn down around 2014. Varityper has a Facebook page that I believe is still maintained by Bill Owens.

Unknown said...

I worked in the Credit, Order Processing and lastly the Export department at AM Varityper in East Hanover from 1978 to 1994. When I started the plant employed about 2000 people. That was cut to about 350 when I left. AM had Varityper dealers and AM subsidiaries worldwide. At its peak exports accounted for about a third of Varityper's revenue. Sadly, the main office and plant on about 14 acres was abandoned in the late nineties and torn down around 2014. A Varityper Facebook page is still maintained by Bill Owens.

Frank La Magra

Unknown said...

I worked in the Credit, Order Processing and lastly the Export department at AM Varityper in East Hanover from 1978 to 1994. When I started work there the plant employed about 2000 people. That was cut to about 350 people before I left. AM had Varityper dealers and AM subsidiaries worldwide. At its peak exports accounted for about a third of Varityper's revenue. Sadly, the main office and plant on about 14 acres was abandoned in the late nineties and torn down around 2014. A Varityper Facebook page is still maintained by Bill Owens.

Frank La Magra

GretchZ said...

My name is Gretchen and I used CompuGraphic and later Varityper phototypesetters in the mid-1980s. This site is AWESOME; I had a lot of fun looking through everything. I remember how cool it was to figure out how to get something to work properly, whether it was a "bouncing baseline," chemical balance problems, old photosensitive paper rolls, and the like. And REAL light-table paste-up! Do you prefer rubber cement or hot wax? Either one; they are both great.

THANK YOU for the memories!

Unknown said...

Wow! I worked in Australia for Addressograph Multigraph, later AM International, as a demonstrator, trainer, sales from around 1970 to around 1987, with a couple of years off i between to have my 2 children. I started on Varitypers and Headliners and the first computerised phototypesetters. The photos here are so fantastic and brought back lots of happy memories of those years. Boy, did things change during my time there, technology exploded! I went on to work with Compugraphic systems in sales, and their next generations of systems. Thank you so much for this history. I’m Sa ing this to show my children and grandchildren.

Al Greenwood said...

Hello I came across this at a yard sale it has a stamp pattern pending so it was a very early varityper headliner. It is a two box set made of wood would love to send photos some way if possiabe as I can find no other photos online. If you would like to see then contact me at

Anonymous said...

Hello. I find this information very fascinating. My father worked for Varityper at the old Newark site before moving with them to the Mt.Pleasant Ave bldg, where he worked until his passing in 1979. I joined in 1977 and left in 1988.

David Kilpatrick said...

Would you like to have photographs, if I can find them all, of a 'secretary' (nice lass, a model of course) posting with a Singer-Friden Justowriter in England around 1976-7-8? I was the PR and photographer for Scope Data Systems, agents for the Varityper and Justowriter, around that time. I think that the machine may not be pure, they only sold to the mini/microcomputer market and not to graphics/print markets, and I suspect if was configured as a word processor and data printer, hooked up to systems from Computer-Technik Muller. I used an IBM Selectric D for impact typesetting which I reproduced photographically, and one of my mailshots on photo paper with images and text had caught their attention. At the end of the 1970s I had ordered a CTM micro (the size of an office of course with 5MB hard disk drive as big as a fridge) from Scope after being given the contract to run Minolta's owner/user group in the UK. But Scope went spectacularly broke leaving me owing the Sunday Times thousands for their advertising. They had been a good client and unable to supply CTM, provided an Adler Bitsy (based on a TI 16-bit processor) in 1980.

Four years later we transitioned to Apple Mac (128) and owned the first laser printer north of Watford (that means something to UK folk). Three years after that, founding a new limited company, I won the first ever Desktop Publishing Awards from the UK's printing research association after Aldus provided beta PageMaker and somehow we got film output which actually worked (Letraset had earlier provided ReadySetGo! but two days before press date our entire magazine proved impossible to output - I recreated all the type-only pages, with tints and rules but no scans back then, in PM in the space of 48 hours).

And another four years later we had a Linotronic 100 then 200P, using modified postscript screening called Hi-Line, for which I became an agent along with a ripped off PS font collection from Fontbank. But we wanted to output colour seps, so bought an AM Varityper 2400. It ability to output seps from postscript created in early versions of Microsoft Word meant I was able to do the filmsetting for Aldus (later Adobe) software manuals printed locally in Scotland - the printers couldn't do it, the manuals had inexplicably been prepared in Word instead of PageMaker. £1500 for an evening's work writing and editing PS, streaming to the 2400 and feeding a little film processor.

Then AM Varityper in the UK hit liquidation. We had bought the 2400 before the Panther arrived, and it was very expensive. But we got notice of the auction some 300 miles, selling off the Varityper stock which was still in their showroom and service department. I sent my staff editor and my son to the auction and we bought enough machines, and the contents of the service department, to have a working Panther to use and four 2400s to sell.

Apple's literature around 1991-2 (negatives don't have date stamps!) included a picture of me with magazines, an Ikegami 24" monitor, Microtek print and film scanners, and the 2400 just after we had got it. From 2003 on single page separation films became obsolete, the printers we had introduced to imagesetting bought 4-up imposed output systems, and later on CTP. We sold the Panther and it associated wet processing to an Asian clothing importer in Birmingham (UK) who had a small label printing press. He came and collected it all and that was the end of typesetting in-house. I owe a career which has been fascinating to the early Singer-Friden encounter, adopting Mac systems the year they arrived, and learning how to adjust two pots on a laser driver board.

The Panther met a kinder fate than our Canon CLC800 and RIP, which fifteen (mostly unused) years later had to be dismantled down to nuts and bolts level by my grandson and me and taken to the local recycling centre.

Paul Sleeper said...

Thank you for the great read. I worked at the AM Varityper in East Hanover, NJ from 1980 to 1981 when the AM Text 500 word processor was moved to AM Jacquard in Manhattan Beach, CA and myself along with 2 other employees. I was one of the programmers for the AM Text 500. I think I have a user manual for the product somewhere. I just came across the printout of the source code for the debugger used on that product line.