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I finally had the opportunity to view “Linotype: the Film”.

It may sound odd. A whole documentary feature about one strange typesetting machine?

A Linotype machine advert from the July / August 1891 "The British Printer"

A Linotype machine advert from the July / August 1891 “The British Printer”

I’ve talked about raised type before, when I wrote about Gutenberg. He revolutionized the world of communication with mass produced type, and the world never looked back. As we now read and communicate on the internet, is seems funny to look back on a single invention from the intervening 400-odd years since Gutenberg. But the Linotype machine was unique. And with its invention in 1886, it stood as one of the last great automated typesetting wonders before photo-typesetting took over.

It is not embellishment to say that the Linotype was a marvel of mechanical engineering. To watch one in operation was to try and follow all the swing arms, gears, cogs, cam shafts, key ways, levers, pulleys, belts, bolts, and pretty much any other mechanical contrivance imaginable. When they liken it to a ‘Rube Goldberg’ machine in the film, they aren’t joking. It’s a literal analogy. It was Victorian-era mechanical knowledge meeting the need for mass-production. It’s also pretty much the closest thing to real life steampunk tech I have ever witnessed. At it’s core, it housed a tank full of molten metal that would be formed into the raised type. This metal was a mixture of lead, tin and antimony. As an aside, antimony (Sb) is a fairly unique metallic element that actually expands when it cools. Very helpful when casting metal.

800px-Linotype_operators_of_the_Chicago_DefenderThe other thing that is required to make an invention revolutionary is timing. And for the Linotype, the timing was perfect. Automation was already taking hold of other forms of industrialization, and the existing method of typesetting by hand was laborious. “You had to have the Linotype machine, because you had an army of people setting type by hand” (Frank Romano, 09:23). Huge rooms with dozens of typesetters devoted to hand compositing, that nowadays could be replaced by a single person sitting at a computer. However, instead of replacing the hand compositors and putting them out of work, the machine expanded the market for print greatly. Books, magazines, and other printed material became so much easier to produce, it was like a second round of Gutenberg all over again! There was a marked explosion of printed communication in the years following the invention of the Linotype.

For myself, the film brought back memories, as I am lucky to have had the chance to run one. Once.

The old machine sat in the corner; dusty, noisy and smelly. And I was eager to try it out. It was in my father’s print shop, and when he said, ‘go for it’, I sat down and composed my first line. I took care to make sure the matrices dropped into the composing area, spacebands were inserted correctly, then pulled the lever to raise the line up to be taken over to the casting ‘part’ of the machine. My father wasn’t nearby, but sitting in the production office around the corner. As they mentioned in the film, the machine makes unmistakable noises, and even from where he was, my father could tell a ‘squirt’ was about to happen. A squirt occurs when the molten metal, instead of being cast uniformly into the mould of the type, ‘escapes’ or squirts in and around the casting area, which, conveniently enough, is located just to the left of the operator’s left leg. Most commonly this happened if any of the matrices fell out before casting.

One does not simply operate a Linotype

“Clutch! Clutch!” my father was yelling from the office. He could tell by the sound what was about to happen. I had a brief moment to think to myself, “I didn’t even know this thing had a clutch!” at about the same time that a load of hot metal squirted onto my pant-leg. Definitely a machine you wouldn’t operate in shorts, I’m sure the Linotype was responsible through its history for more ruined pairs of trousers than you can imagine. I shut off the machine and prepared myself for some work. The hot metal cools almost instantly, freezing up the casting mechanism into a solid mess. It takes a good deal of time and patience to clear a bad squirt.

Thus ended my operation of the machine. It was already barely used by that point, and although my father continued to operate it, he did so fewer and fewer times. Eventually, it was sold for scrap. So, while I can say that “I operated a Linotype machine”, it’s really just talk. What really happened is that I gained respect for a complicated piece of equipment, and touched, etaoin shrdlu briefly, a little slice of history.

As for the film? It’s available here, on iTunes. I enjoyed, it, and might suggest that others would like it too. But at the price, if you aren’t as interested in such things, you may be a little less impressed. It is a film for those who are truly ‘geeky’ about print and where it comes from.