Tuesday, October 27, 2015

C. C. Stern Type Foundry

The C.C. Stern Type Foundry is really, really cool!  It's a large studio in Northeast Portland where they are keeping the technology of moveable type alive.  Moveable type was used in the west from 1455 when Johannes Gutenberg first printed his famous Bibles until the 1970s.  He was the first to use moveable type for our Greco-Roman alphabet, which must have been far easier to do than when the Chinese invented it more than 400 years earlier for use with their writing system.  One of his innovations was to cast type from an alloy of the elements lead, tin and antimony, a combination which he found after years of patient experimentation and which has never been improved upon. At C. C. Stern, they explained that some of their type casting machines use alloys of these metals in different proportions, but the basic recipe is still the same.  The volunteers at C. C. Stern were absolutely amazing, generously showing us each machine, from a simple hand casting tool for individual letters, to machines that offered the breakthrough of being capable of casting a whole line of type at once. All of us were fascinated, especially my son.

Our visit was a reminder that technology that makes things faster, easier and less expensive often comes at the price of self-sufficiency, both for individuals and communities.  Sometimes the tradeoff seems entirely worth that price, but at other times it seems debatable.  When the moveable type press was created in Europe, books ceased to be luxury items that took years to create and both literature and literacy began to flourish. Suddenly a wealth of human knowledge could be shared. It's likely that none but the very wealthy mourned the loss of the many highly skilled arts that had been combined to create illuminated manuscripts. The type casting machines at C. C. Stern are still being lovingly repaired and maintained so that they could potentially still be useful pretty much forever, if only the knowledge of how to do so is preserved.  In contrast, I remember being quite surprised years ago to learn that I could not find anyone to repair our computer printer, because they are made to be discarded when they break.  Before the railroad, people often lived their whole lives within walking distance of their birth, and everything they needed came from within their own communities.  Today we rely daily on more things than we can count that are not even made within our nation.  And we face a crisis in journalism, writing and publishing because the leap from page to screen has left many of the skilled people who create our content without a profitable business model. So we are now on the opposite end of things, where we have the means to say things faster, easier and more cheaply than ever before, but the proportion of what is worth reading gets smaller and smaller. 

C. C. Stern Foundry is open every third Saturday, from 11AM-3PM when volunteers show off this marvelous place to visitors.  It would not be a good place to take anyone too young to be counted upon to avoid touching anything without asking, but everyone else should go! Don't miss this true Portland hidden gem! 

A hand casting tool.
The Monotype.  We got to watch it cast a batch of ornaments.
This example shows how the same ornament design can be repeated to form a lovely pattern.
Ornaments coming out of the Monotype.
The Linotype machine, the first machine to cast an entire line of type at once.
"Hello! Welcome to the Type Foundry."
These slanted drawers keep type neatly arranged inside.

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