Walter’s string v latest technology

Compositor setting up type in the hot metal days of newspaper production in the '1970s
Compositor setting up type in the hot metal days of newspaper production in the '1970s

I miss Walter’s piece of string, I really do, and the older I get the more I look back fondly on it.

Actually, what I really miss is what Walter’s piece of string represents in my mind, a different time when life seemed somehow simpler, less stressful and, well ... happier I suppose.

“What’s the old fool on about?” you’re no doubt wondering. Well let me explain:

When I started out in this business, 25 years ago, big changes were already coming in thick and fast.

Once-independent local newspapers had been swallowed up by the big newspaper groups, which, quite naturally, wanted things doing their way. Yet some of the old ways lingered on.

The paper I joined as an eager cub reporter was one such, and although we worked on snazzy new “green screen” word processors, the typewriters were still there for when the tech went twang, which it often did.

One crucial part of the week was getting “the measure” of the newspaper... in layman’s terms, measuring the column inches of advertising in that week’s paper to determine the overall number of pages (the pagination). There has to be a ratio between the two to make the product commercially viable.

Getting “the measure” was the job of one Walter Shuttleworth, who had worked in the typesetting, layout and printing department for as long as anyone could remember.

He did it using a piece of string, because providing you knew how long it was – say 10in – just running it along the adverts on each page and adding the 10s together would give you the overall measure. In those days, by the way, the pages were laid out on paper, not computer screens.

Walter’s piece of string then, was a crucial bit of kit, but eventually we were told there was a new computerised system which would make it redundant.

We protested that we didn’t need it – our system worked, but it was “progress”. So for six weeks we ran both systems side by side, and guess what? – every week Walter’s piece of string gave us the measure on time and accurate, while the computer, which relied on several people inputting the correct information, was late and wildy inaccurate.

For me, Walter’s piece of string is an analogy for a fast-changing world. I remember the promises that new technology would make all our lives easier and less stressful – I’m still waiting for that brave new world, but I think, on balance, I preferred the string.