For this week’s Retrotechtacular we’re looking at Linotype Machines; mechanical marvels that brought about the mass production of printed media.
It was a cold dreary day in 1876, when a German inventor living in America named [Ottmar Mergenthaler] was approached by [James O. Clephane], who required a faster way of producing legal briefs. Various patents existed for newspaper typewriters but they did not work very well, so [Mergenthaler] set to work on a new design. Traditionally type sets were cast on one machine, and stamped on another to create the text. On a train [Mergenthaler] thought, why not just combine the machines? And with that the idea for a revolutionary machine was born.
The Linotype Machine has a library of matrices, which are character molds that create the slug — the name for a cast line-of-type. The operator uses a keyboard to input the line of text, which then releases the matrices of the corresponding letters. These are then transferred to the casting station, where type metal is cast into the matrices in a process called hot metal typesetting. The matrices are then returned to the library, and the cast lines of text are cooled, removed, and used for stamping in the mass production of printed media. It sounds simple enough, but now realize the entire machine is mechanically automated; as long as you keep filling it with type metal, you can continue producing slugs simply by typing on the keyboard.
The machines were used from the late 19th century all the way up to the 60’s and 70’s until they were replaced by more efficient offset lithography and computer typesetting.
After the break, check out the fascinating documentary from the 1960’s, you will marvel at the mechanical workings of the machine. If you don’t have 35 minutes to blow, at least check out 1:30 to 6:45 for the basic overview. But you probably won’t be able to stop watching.
If you want to see one of these amazing machines in person and you happen to live in the UK, you’re in and out of luck! The Whittington Press holds an annual open day on the first Saturday of September every year at which you can see a one of these machines in action. Unfortunately this means you’ve just missed this year’s opportunity. But put it on your calendar for next year because this is one of the few printing presses left that still prints books by letterpress.
For the Americans in our audience, there is an operational one at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, although you’re unlikely to see it in action. Fear not however, you can check out the Linotype Film which has many screening events across the country. Some of them even include a real Linotype machine demonstration!
Retrotechtacular is a weekly column featuring hacks, technology, and kitsch from ages of yore. Help keep it fresh by sending in your ideas for future installments.