Retrotechtacular: Linotype Machines, Mechanical Marvels

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.

[Thanks Matthew!]

39 thoughts on “Retrotechtacular: Linotype Machines, Mechanical Marvels

  1. Hello!
    I don’t have to…. My family ran a typography shop in Manhattan for many years. They used Intertype machines who were related. I grew up watching them at work for many years. And watched the men take the slugs and create proofs. They did advertising typography. In fact at one point there were more print shops who used these old fellows then any other format. In fact perhaps the largest user of them happened to be the New York Times, and then one other paper. Finally the Bowne company a shop who published IPOs after the lawyers finished negotiations for such was just such a big shop. In fact they had a museum of sorts in the South Street Seaport area.

    First commentator, must mean something.

      1. Both of you are right, which is a good thing. However consider what sort of phototypesetting machines these were. No they didn’t suck, they were just fiendishly complicated, and required precision and proper training. It wasn’t until one hundred years later, when Apple brought us the Mac and desktop publishing, that it became possible. In fact the same company built some of the best phototypesetting machines, around, including several laser driven ones. And they surfaced before the desktop phase, about ten to fifteen years later. In fact the output machines used then were indeed made by Linotype…….. Oh and don’t laugh, even the phone company needed outside help……….

  2. According to the Wikipedia link provided in this article Ottmar Mergenthaler became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1878 and developed his machine after 1884 so Ottmar Mergenthaler was not ” a German inventor living in America” when he had an idea for the Linotype. Ottmar Mergenthaler was in fact a naturalized citizen of the United States by that time.

    The guy was an American for 6 years before he even had the idea!

  3. I once helped to fix one of these machines for a museum. It was a broken relay in the thermostat circuit. I was in fact very much relieved to take out that mercury relay which was positioned directly above the 400°C molten lead tub.. just imagine how fast the mercury would vaporize should the glass tube break.

    Unfortunately I never happened to drop by when they operated the machine, when they finally got it mechanically working as well. But I did get to see some of the slugs made by it; very nice looking.

    1. The Industrial Revolution was over before the Linotype machine was developed. Although it is fair to say that the Industrial Revolution laid the groundwork for the Linotype machine. Perhaps you could even make a case for the Linotype machine ushering in the Age of Information that we’re still in today?

      1. The Linotype company was founded in Baltimore, and the machine it produced was as important then as the Internet is now—it basically removed barriers to quick dissemination of printed information. Anyone could publish brochures, leaflets and books quickly so it is no wonder that it fuelled the social movements of the time. It didn’t hurt that the workers in the printing industry were well paid and well read, and formed the avant-garde of the union movement.

    2. Personally, I was astounded by the ingenuity of that device. I can only imagine how expensive it must have been to engineer and manufacture something with so many moving parts, and with such precision. Nowadays with CNC machines, it’s be a piece of cake, relatively speaking.

      Designing machines like this would be my dream job.

    1. Has anyone ever taken that “linotype as a rapid prototyping machine” concept and ran with it? Its intended end goal aside, it’s essentially a mechanism for arranging dies in a given configuration with high precision, and then automatically casting multiple elements on a single sprue. Increasing the degrees of freedom and possible configurations shouldn’t be too complex with modern tech, and there’s no reason that the end product needs to be a glorified stamp. What if the dies could be designed and arranged so that they can be placed in different configurations to cast objects with different, (somewhat)complex geometries? And even if that isn’t possible, or feasible, what about a “library” of dies for commonly used gear ratios, bushings, linkages, small hardware, and various other fiddly mechanical bits, all of which could be cast on demand from an alloy like zamak?

      1. At the end of the 20th century I worked for a guy who converted an old Linotype into a high speed bullet casting machine. No reason it couldn’t be converted likewise to cast other shapes.

  4. One of the most amazing aspects of the Linotype was how it justified line widths. Multiple step wedges were dropped between the words. They would all drop at the same rate causing the spaces to all become the same width.

  5. Wow, the inventor was very clever! That blows me away, I had no idea. I am curious about the paper punch device at the end of the video. It seems to indicate that it can encode 90 different characters (plus space, and roman or italic?) with 6 binary digits?!? Huh, I did I miss something?

    1. I suspect it used the same trick that Baudot (5 level) code did – by having shift characters. In the case of the 32 possible Baudot codes, two were “Letters” and “Numbers” which toggled the meaning of subsequent characters (only upper case letters there). With 6 bits, you could have 64 characters – or two shifts giving 2*(64-2) = 124 total. Or 4*(64-4) = 240, and so on.

  6. I observed a similar machine in the late 1980s when I took print shop in high school. They also made lead slugs on site and I remember seeing the machine making that (I was mostly running a printing press for making copies). I could tell the writing was on the wall when in the same room people were using specific kinds of computers to make Mac-like printouts on photographic paper.

  7. Oh yes. They came in both gas-fired and electric-fired versions. My imaginary museum of communication history features a gas-fired Mergenthaler Linotype and an Ampex Mark IV VTR as the featured exhibits. At the end of their life-cycle, many in big city newspapers were computer-driven from early editing systems. And paper-tape was an intermediate step in the evolution.
    And speaking of the Ampex quadruplex video tape machine. The principal circuit designer of that first commercially successful recorder was Ray Dolby, while an undergraduate at Stanford, who died just last week. Truly a modern practical genius as the same way that Ottmar Mergenthaler was. I nominate the 2-inch quadruplex video tape machine as the next retrotechtacular in honor of Mr. Dolby.

  8. It’s funny, because in USA you only see these machines on museums, but here I’ve a newspaper 5 blocks from home that still uses one of those for printing the newspaper. I’ll see if I can get a picture.

  9. Yesss! When you did the retrotacular about plastic this was a related video and I watched it afterwards…like three times. Much more interesting! Amazing piece of mechanical engineering.

    Worlds apart from the Compugraphic photo-typesetting equipment and its computer terminal, like I grew up around. (My father and his parents did graphic arts/advertising work.) Though after I showed this to him, my father told me he did have a bit of experience with ‘hot type’.

    The very idea of having this massively-complex mechanical behemoth that takes an operator’s keyboard input, and turns it into slugs of formatted text cast in lead alloy ON-DEMAND seems so utterly bizarre. Almost like it’s stuck somewhere between movable type and more modern technologies. Like there was some last hurdle they couldn’t get over in getting away from physical type, so they just said “Screw it!” and made this mechanical marvel with a keyboard that *magics* type from thin air.

  10. I first started operating Lin-O-Type machines in the mid 1950’s. In the mid 60’s through the early 1980’s I made my living doing maintenance on the machines. The title for that job in the newspaper industry was “composing room machinist”. They were absolutely amazing pieces of equipment. In the late 1980’s when I phased the hot metal typesetting machines out of my business, I just could not see sending those amazing machines to the junk heap. Instead of that, I donated one Lin-o-Type machine to each of the three museums located in McCamey, Texas, Crane, Texas and Iraan, Texas.

  11. The open day at the Whittington Press is part of the village fête and has the same feel to it. The whole operation is in a small low building crammed with printing equipment, and on this day people too. 2 years ago I took my brother, a retired typographer who had worked many of the machines. AlI the machines were running. It was just fantastic to watch those cast letters just popping out ready to use.

    I heard that getting hold of the fresh metal ingots is getting harder. There was a big pile of used type and a furnace for recycling which I had never thought of but makes sense. Apparently the metal degrades each time it is reused though.

    Well worth a visit.

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