Coach House #retrotech – An Update for Sept 2013

I’ve been working for some time on a research project tracing the technological innovations at Toronto’s Coach House Press. The Coach House, a small literary publisher and fine printer, was founded by Stan Bevington in the mid-1960s and specialized in typography and darkroom-driven production. In the early 1970s, the Coach House took a leap into the then-new world of computer-driven phototypesetting. That move, along with a fortuitous connection with the University of Toronto’s computer science program (one of the very first Unix installations anywhere), led the Coach House onto a long-term agenda of innovation, invention, and a culture of serious tinkering.

My research began a few years ago with a handful of interviews with Stan Bevington and others close to the early project. But over the past year while on sabbatical, I consolidated my research, working to flesh out the story and its many, many fascinating subtexts.

I dug into their earliest homebrew innovations, like the hardware interface Ed Hale built to directly connect the Coach House’s Mergenthaler VIP phototypesetter to a Datapoint 2200 minicomputer Stan had bought to drive it. Hale claims he’d talked to vendors about the possibility of wiring the two together, but nobody had done it until he got out his soldering iron. Once the computer could talk to the phototypesetting unit, work began in earnest on software. Programmer David Slocombe worked over several years on the development of a software environment, based on a recursive macro processor, for editors and typesetters preparing text files for high-quality printing. His work paralleled the early development of generalized markup at IBM.

I tracked down a number of people associated with the founding of SoftQuad, a software company spun off from Coach House in 1984 which became a world leader in SGML—and later XML and the Web. With SoftQuad, the Coach House’s decade of in-house software development led to a much wider world, as did many of the talented people who had gathered there in the embryonic years of digital publishing. The company was initially established to bring the Coach House’s Unix-based typesetting software to market, but SoftQuad’s focus shifted quickly to the nascent world of SGML, where they found a new and growing market which eventually led to global success with WWW editing software.

I travelled to Banff, AB to mine the archives of the Banff Centre, looking for traces of Yuri Rubinsky’s founding of the Banff Publishing Workshop. The Banff Workshop was established in 1981 after the example set by the Radcliffe Publishing Course at Harvard, but within a couple of years became a world leader in teaching computers in publishing, influencing a whole generation of publishers and printers. Rubinsky eventually left the Banff workshops to focus on running SoftQuad, but for a couple of years in the 80s, Rubinsky, Bevington, and co. were driving to Banff each summer with their backseats full of Unix networking gear, to set up labs for the students.

I pored over various archival collections at a number of Canadian universities, including the Frank Davey fonds right here at SFU. Davey was a key member of the Coach House editorial board, and also the founder of both Open Letter, a literary journal produced at the Coach House, and SwiftCurrent, the world’s first nationwide online writer’s community (circa 1983). Davey’s papers include some fascinatingly prescient thought about the meeting of literature and digital networks.

And I learned about the Coach House’s role in leading Canadian publishers’ early efforts to adopt digital technology, and its role in influencing government policy, as in its submission to the 1981 Federal Cultural Policy Review Committee, outlining a national structure for electronic book distribution (in both senses of the word), decades ahead of its time.

It’s enough to fill a book. But you’ll have to hold steady for that. Right now, the project is in the form of 200+ wiki pages that I am working through in order to pull out a set of coherent narratives—and the backbone of a readable book. Stay tuned… and in the meantime, stop by the current Coach House and check out some of their fine books.