Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Laurence Urdang

The lexicographer who was a pioneer of computerized dictionary typesetting, Laurence Urdang, died recently. Here is his obituary from the New York Times. (You’ll need to register.)

The following is from my article in Typography Papers 4:

The production of the Random House Dictionary in 1964 was a landmark in the computerization of dictionaries. The managing editor, Laurence Urdang, was the moving force in the early computerization of dictionaries, and immediately envisioned a complete process in which text was entered, stored, sorted and compared, and finally transferred to a typesetting machine. The Random House Dictionary text was keyboarded after writing and each entry was divided and entered in fields assigned to different levels of information (for example ­headword, pronunciation, definitions, etc.). This made it possible to ­prepare information for each level and in each of 150 subject fields, ‘ensuring better uniformity of treatment and far greater consistency among related pieces of information than had been achieved on other dictionaries.’ (Urdang, 1984).

Though Urdang was successful in sorting and establishing the continuity of information throughout the dictionary, he was not able to set up a usable interface between the database and photo­typesetting equipment of the time. Two machines, the Photon and the Videocomp (the US version of the Hell Digiset), were technically capable of being driven by magnetic tape, but the expected slow speed of composition caused by the frequent font changes in dictionary text, and the Videocomp’s inability to produce a true italic, ruled them out. Eventually print-outs from the database were used as copy for hot-metal Monotype composition.

For more information, see: Urdang, Laurence (1984). ‘A lexicographer’s adventures in computing’, in Dictionaries: journal of the Dictionary Society of North America, no. 6 (1984), pp. 150–65

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