A machine that revolutionized publishing almost as much as Gutenberg's invention of the moveable type. It was developed by German immigrant (to the USA) Ottmar Mergenthaler in the 1880s, based on a design by Charles T. Moore.

The machine made the process of typesetting about 5 times faster and was called the eighth wonder of the world by Thomas Edison. It allowed a typesetter to set type using a keyboard, one line at a time. Each keypress caused a so-called matrix, a small piece of metal imprinted with the correspondig character to be appended to the current line. When the line was completed, another key caused the assembled line to be transported to another part of the machine where it was used as a mold to cast the line with molten metal. Afterwards, the matrices were automatically returned to the correct place in the magazine.

It is easy to see how this machine revolutionized printing, since the typesetting previously had to be done by hand, one character at a time. Of course this meant that most of the hand compositors lost their jobs as the Linotype spread. However, it made printed text much cheaper; prior to the Linotype, newspapers seldom had more than a few pages, and not everyone could afford books.

Mechanical typesetting machines that worked the same way as the Linotype were the standard in typesetting well into the second half of the 20th century, until the advances in semiconductor technology made DTP software viable. Even before the printing process became fully digital, hybrid methods came into use, where unformatted text was fed into a computer, which optimized line lengths and justification and produced a punched tape which controlled Linotype-like machines.

I was fortunate enough that not only did my high school have an actual, working Linotype, but I attended said school before the litigiousness of American society had reached the point which would have made its operation near children flatly impossible - or at best, a thing of criminality and negligence. It had been manufactured sometime in the 1890s. When I was in junior high, we had Print Shop class in the same half-basement room that produced the stacks of paper any educational institution needed to function - test sheets, attendance sheets, evaluation forms, newsletters, form letters, report card blanks and more. Walking into the concrete-floored space was to dance into a parallel world - from the close-confined basement passages that led around one of the gyms, you would leave the smell of damp stone and steam pipes behind when you stepped over the threshold. The door was a sliding, metal-panelled monstrosity, the type that would close an elevator in a factory - but when it was open, you would tumble down the steps in a knot of kids, into the sharp acrid smell of photochemicals overlaid with the crisp scent of paper and the softer, wetter odor of impact press ink which was spread with a spatula.

Running through that melange of lithographic potpourri was a single, clear, dangerous smell - the tang of something burning and lethal. That was the Linotype.

It sat next to a main support post, slightly isolated. Our print shop teacher always spent the first class giving a safety lecture and demonstration. He would put a stack of paper into the hydraulic papercutter and slice it through - only then picking up the plastic dummy's arm he'd put behind the paper to show us the sliced-off hand. The impact presses would be spun up, and he would put something soft and deformable into them for one cycle to show us their implacability. It was his job to temper our teenage immortality with some basic caution, and he succeeded - in no small part because of the Linotype.

You could tell yourself that you were too smart to put a hand anywhere near the cutting blade. You were certainly not going to leave your hand in an impact press. Why should you pay attention to that? You knew you were OK.

Then he would take you over to the Linotype. He would casually rest the dummy's hand on the edge of the machine while he took a seat and banged out a line of type - always the same one, too: "The Quick Brown Fox Evaded the Jackknifed Dog." Matrices would drop from their storage bins at the top of the machine through the sorting slide to fall into place along the buffer with the sound of textual pachinko, overlaid with the constant clicking of the machine's rotating parts. Typing on the Linotype was an exercise in consistency, not speed - for it was easy to hit the keys too fast, causing traffic jams inside the innards as key matrices fought for position only to glom up inside the sorter. A properly run Linotype had a hypnotic cadence, with its own spinning mechanism providing the beat for a staccato, percussive metallic canasta band of information.

Once the line was complete, he would slide the return bar to ensure that the matrices were tight along the metal rule which made up the cast, and pull the enormous brass handle which started the Linotype into its magical dance.

If ever the words 'Rube Goldberg Device' meant anything, this was it. Levers that slid out from nowhere, metal arms that swung through dozens of degrees, the rapid-fire clattering of the matrix keys sliding into their bed, the swing-arm moving up into the air in a rapid but smooth arc, bringing it down again when the cast was ready. A clack as the apparatus at the center moved, and suddenly you would notice that the dummy's hand was no longer on the edge of the keyboard - it had been grabbed by one of the mysterious bits of the machine, and somehow rested in the middle of a mass of metal pieces worthy of an explosion in a typewriter factory, but before that could really sink in, the crucible would tip, and-

BANG

-molten lead, molten lead all shining and gray, would pour from it into the mold but catch the dummy's fingers, and they would burst into flame. Someone would always start screaming at this point, despite that fact that he made you stand back a good fifteen feet and no one was in danger, and he would calmly raise the fire extinguisher he had been retrieving while you were watching the lever-arm catastrophe in horror and PSSSSSSSSHHHHHT the fire was out, just in time for the Linotype to start waving its spider-like arms again and moving things around with a groan and a clang -

and a small lead bar would drop out of the slot onto the shelf to the left of the keyboard, just like Willy Wonka's Chewing-Gum Meal. Letters would be shining along its narrow edge, while the dummy's hand would fall to the floor, melted and charred.

None of us ever hurt ourselves on the Linotype. We always were very careful putting lead back into the crucible, making sure it didn't splash. In all the years I recall, no one was ever hurt in the print shop.

Shortly after that instructor left, there was no one to fix the Linotype, and the school threw it out with the trash.

I still have a stack of postcards I made using Linotype bars, and a single bar of text from that machine, echo from mechanical genius past, which reads "anointed with the flypaper of creation in a shorter" and nothing more.

I have no idea what I was writing. I've long since lost the rest of the print.

Lin"o*type (?), n. [See Line ; Type.] (Print.)

(a)

A kind of typesetting machine which produces castings, each of which corresponds to a line of separate types. By pressing upon keys like those of a typewriter the matrices for one line are properly arranged; the stereotype, or slug, is then cast and planed, and the matrices are returned to their proper places, the whole process being automatic.

(b)

The slug produced by the machine, or matter composed in such lines. -- Lin"o*typ`ist (#), n.

 

© Webster 1913

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