Robert Legault sent me the URL for Denny Johnson’s Minding my p’s & q’s, which he described as “an old hot-type guy’s memories.”
In our family enterprise the happiest moments in our lives were when the Linotype, aka: The Lino or The Dragon, was working correctly. Which was, in-fact, usually never. My father either called it: “That lead-spurting bastard,” or “That no-good pile of #!!*!*!# garbage.” I never heard him utter a good word towards the apparatus, and on at least two occasions watched him hurl a perfectly good horsehide mallet at the device from across the room. We had three Linotype machines over the time I was growing up in the newspaper business. Each one cost about $12,500 at the time and would bring you at least as much today in iron-weight at the scrap yard.Some of these are my memories too, though I’m some years younger than Denny Johnson. I remember the Linotype, with its inscrutable keyboard, matrixes falling down chutes like a literate pachinko game, lead pig hung up on a chain to melt, bucket hanging off one side of the machine for collecting and re-melting old slugs, and all too eloquent splashes of now-cooled lead on the floor around it.
Now it’s fair to suppose if you had a spanking brand new out of the box Linotype when it was invented you might have found it a pleasant, even interesting, machine. It had so many gears, pulleys, cams, parts, pieces and components that you just couldn’t accept as true it would ever work right and in the case of our Linotypes, you’d be exactly right and I would applaud you for your insight.Because our Linotypes were usually someone’s cast offs in need of repair, so our one operator was out of necessity also our one mechanic, which would cut down production time nearly in half. And if the operator/mechanic got sick or drunk, which was not an unordinary occurrence, you ended up flirting with disaster trying to meet a weekly newspaper deadline. We had three of the machines but not at the same time mind you, because there never would have been the room for even two of the monstrosities in the back room of that newspaper office, and we wouldn’t have had anyone to operate three anyway; our guy was too busy fixing the one we had.
In a nutshell, here’s how it was invented to work. The operator (in our shop, “Frank”) would sit at a keyboard and strike out the proper letters one by one following the written copy on his clipboard. When Frank would touch a key it would trip a relay that would discharge a shiny brass matrix stored in a magazine at the top of the machine and start it on a wild adventure. The matrix or mat, into which an impression of a letter had been engraved, would drop down—gravity permitting—into its proper place in the line, letters gathering next to one another in the assembly elevator forming words. Spaces were added between words and when adequate mats and spacebands were assembled to form a full tight justified sentence, a bell would ring.I remember the old pressmen. They were a hard-bitten lot, and were usually missing at least one finger. I learned arcane skills like copyfitting, but I never got to operate a Linotype. I came in as a typesetter after the new photo-offset printing technology and computerized “cold type” systems did away with the old universe of hot lead.
Next, the entire line would be moved up by a handle called the elevator lever, starting the line on the way to the casting mechanism. In the casting process the line of matrix letter molds would be impact-filled with liquid lead, which hardened almost immediately, and then was discharged from the mold as hot slugs with letters atop—and a “line-o-type” was born.… The casting system consisted of the mold which was affixed to a hot metal pot filled with molten lead blistering at up to 600 degrees. When a line was cast that was too loose (or unjustified), lead would first fill up the mold and then squirt through the loose cracks, sending streams of molten metal soaring like silver bullets ten feet in all directions. Everyone who worked at and around the Linotypes was burned or injured at one time or another. They were known as “Magma Dragons” and always dicey to be around. The Lino was one of the reasons the print shop owner carried workers compensation insurance. Well that, and the metal saws. Hot lead is as unforgiving as molten lava.
About the time I reached the midway of high school, my life among the letters was about to be highlighted by three new characters on the scene: I, B, & M.C’est moi!
The noisy nasty Linotype had spurt its last gasp of scorching dragon fire, and sat dejected and rejected at the rear dock door, waiting for the scrap man. The gargantuan press had preceded the Lino in passing. No one mourned their demise for long, and in fact we saluted the occasion as a giant step-ahead in our production scheme.… The IBM system would print-out photo-ready type for the new photo-offset printing process by striking a carbon ribbon onto a clean piece of enamel coated paper. It featured a virtual cornucopia of IBM golf-ball font-elements sized from six to twelve point -– bold , italic, or underlined. The clarity of the new typefaces were superior to the lead of old and didn’t wear out as fast. Plus the machine could be operated by any first-class typist. The operator need no more to be a mechanic, or for that matter, a man.
[The IBM strike-on system was] like any other IBM Selectric typewriter of the time. The ever-recognizable keyboard was operated by a typist who was required to type the line once—push a button on the machine—and then re-type the line exactly the same as the first. At that point, presto, a justified line would print onto the paper in the typewriter.I operated one of those things, or one of its immediate descendants. The image quality was excellent, but justification was a pain in the wazoo. If I recall correctly, the difficulty of getting the justification function to work on an IBM typesetting system was the reason The Whole Earth Catalog was typeset flush-left.
Our system also had a typist sitting at an IBM keyboard, but the letters (or keystrokes) that she chose were then memorized on a magnetic tape cassette that could be inserted into a second composing machine where the result would be a print-out of justified copy on enameled paper in any width.That was a miracle: the same keystrokes used twice to produce repro copy in different widths and typefaces. The first several typesetting systems I worked on didn’t have any mechanisms for saving keystrokes. If something went wrong, you had to re-keyboard the copy. At the time, this didn’t seem as iniquitous as it would today, because we were all used to typewriters.
By the early 70’s an even newer machine had taken the place of our IBM system in what was now known as the newspaper’s computer room. This machine, the AM-Varityper 748 was paper-tape driven, affording the option of multiple operators, and featured eight different interchangeable sizes of photo-type from six point to 72 pt., and four different typefaces on-line, literally a choice of 32 fonts at the cost of a single keystroke. This was one of the first computerized photo-typesetters to hit the market and old Frank would have found it a wonder.I don’t know about Frank, but I sure thought they were a wonder, especially the reuseable paper tape. We had a little device like a skeletal pencil sharpener for spooling up finished tapes, after which we paper-clipped the loose end, wrote the name of the story on the endbit, and hung them on a nail hammered into the wall.
When you lifted the gull wing-like doors on the top of the machine to gain access to the inner workings you would have thought you were looking back into the machinery of the old Lino: watch-like, mechanical and electronic working together. But this gear was driven by four large printed circuit-boards, and outfitted with more chips then a high-tech woodchuck. To set type, an intense magnified xenon light was activated by the operating system. The light source would be directed through an spinning Mylar disc that contained film of four different fonts of type, usually in the same family. The discs were simply removed to add a new disc with a different set of fonts. It was magical.The internal workings looked like an orrery turned on its side. The system I learned on used mylar strips, one per font, that looked like elongated photo negatives. They were solid black, opaque, except for the letter forms, which were clear. You’d fasten the strip to a spinning wheel inside the machine, and as you typed, the wheel would rotate to position a letterform where the light could shine through it and onto a piece of photographic film.
This all took place in the matter of instants and the leaps in production time were mind boggling. Sixty lines a minute was normal in most sizes. In the unlikely event that old Frank’s Lino was operating at optimum speed, he could have expected no more than two lines in that same minute.Faster, cheaper, easier to learn, and you could own lots more fonts. Publications used to be stodgier because so much effort went into just getting them out.
Once the story was typeset, a cassette containing the exposed paper could be removed from the machine and developed in the nearby newly constructed darkroom. The result was perfectly set copy, smudge-proof camera-ready type in virtually any size or face.Oooh, fancy—they had a darkroom. We had a boxy tabletop machine that would feed in, develop, and spit out the photographic paper, and spit out a lot of fumes along with it. Then the paper would be hung on a line to dry, like Gutenberg’s laundry. By the way: that smudge-proof, perfectly set copy? If you were lucky, it was. Lightstrikes would produce solid black bars and patches. Misalignments in any of the moving parts could create very strange effects. But generally speaking, it worked.
With this machine the publisher could create his entire newspaper, headlines to obituaries to classifieds, and save cash. Input was through all the paper-tape producing keyboards your enterprise required. This machine boasted 16K of memory and went for sale at just under $40,000.The next big jump was the Macintosh plus laser printer: faster, cheaper, and easier again. People sneered at the type quality—but it was good enough for a lot of uses, and typesetting shops started going out of business by the dozens. I’ll never forget the day I first saw Pagemaker pour text into page after virtual pasted-up page. Patrick and I stood there with our mouths open and our arms around each other, dazzled by this patent miracle.
These days we are all the operators, the compositors. In our day now there is not a thing that we could do on the Lino or the IBM machine or even the 748 that we can’t do right from here on a $2,000 (or less) Dell or Gateway home computer. In fact this very machine could have easily produced our entire sixteen page weekly newspaper, headlines, copy and advertisements in about one day had we possessed it in 1970. But of course that’s what technology is all about. In our simple home machines today we have a practically unlimited selection of sizes and type faces right at our very fingertips. We can toggle to boldface or italic on a whim. No drawer to open, no ink to dry, no Linotype to scrape. My keystrokes on my keyboard are the same letters that you’re reading at this moment—the process has become more personal between writer and reader—save the editor’s fine suggestions.All true.
Linotypes were a cool piece of working technology. They hardly changed from the 1880s to the 1970s. When you consider what an advance they represented over the system they replaced (a guy with a type stick in his hand, setting text letter by letter) and the complexity of the task they performed, it’s mildly amazing that they came along when they did. In combination with faster presses and cheap pulp paper, they were transformative. When I see one in a museum, I feel fondly nostalgic. But I wouldn’t go back to hot type if you paid me.