October 6, 2014

The (other) eighth wonder of the world: Linotype


Linotype matrix. Image via Wikipedia.

Linotype matrix. Image via Wikipedia.


Good news, mid-20th-century-printing-technology-heads! The definitive history of the Linotype Company is here: Frank Romano’s unfussily titled History of the Linotype Company (the lack of an “A” or “The” somehow makes it all the more commanding) will answer all your questions about slugs and spacebands.

The Linotype machine was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1884 and, though it looks like the offspring of a gloriously complicated love affair between a Singer sewing machine, a loom, and an oom-pah band — as Dan Piepenbring points out in a blogpost on Linotype for the Paris Review, “to look at it is to imagine it taking your hand off” — what it does is not so hard to wrap your head around.

Essentially, it automates the process of creating, assembling, and distributing type, which, since the time of Gutenberg, had been a series of discrete steps, all done (of course) by  hand. Before Linotype, type was cast individually, in a mould, letter by letter (this video of Stan Nelson at the Atelier Press shows how it’s done), and each line assembled, also letter by letter and space by space, to create a surface that could be inked and printed from. Linotype collapsed those steps and made the casting unit the line instead of the letter. And it did this faster than any human could, even the champions of nineteenth-century typesetting contests.

It was a leap forward in the history of printing, leading Thomas Edison to call it “the eighth wonder of the world” (though it turns out you can pretty much call anything that, including Andre the Giant).

But though it cut down on the hours needed to produce and distribute type, it also created, for nearly a hundred years, the job of Linotype operator. A recent documentary, “Linotype: The Film” (there must be something about Linotype and emotional restraint), is as much a history of Linotype operators as the machine, showing them operating still-functional machines and talking about their many years in the profession. It’s elegiac, a bit, but the Linotype operators left (many of whom, originally, were compositors who jumped into the new job) are a pretty unflappable bunch — when Tim Trower, who still operates Linotypes at his print shop is Springfield, MO, is asked where the Linotype fits in with new technologies, he says, with a certain relish: “It doesn’t.”

Here’s trailer for “Linotype: The Film”:

And a Linotype machine still being used to print a newspaper in Saguache, Colorado:

Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.