Reverse-Engineering Helps Typesetting Machine Punch Paper Tape Again

[Scott M. Baker] wants a paper tape punch for his retrocomputer collection. That’s fine with us, we don’t judge. In fact,  these electromechanical peripherals from the past have a lot going for them, especially the noise. But alas, such things are a little hard to come by these days, and rolling one from scratch would be a difficult proposition indeed. What to do?

Luckily, we live in the future, and eBay holds all sorts of wonders, including these typesetter keyboards from the 1970s, which [Scott] promptly reverse-engineered. We’ll get to the details in a minute, but first, can we just take a moment to think about the workflow these things were part of? These aren’t terminals — they lack any kind of IO apart from the punched paper tape they spewed out. The operator’s job was to punch in copy without any kind of feedback that they were hitting the right keys, and just sent the paper tap record of the session off to the typesetting machines. And you think your job sucks.

To give this thing an interface, [Scott] first had to revive the power supply, whose capacitors had seen sunnier days. With that out of the way, he set about understanding the CPU-less machine by analyzing its 7400-series logic, as well as planning how to make the native 6-bit output into a more manageable 8-bit. Thankfully, the tape punch already had solenoids for the top two bits, but finding a way to drive them wasn’t trivial.

The solution was to bypass a buffer so that the bits for the desired character can be set with a Raspberry Pi and an ATF22V10 programmable logic device. That’s enough to force the punch to do its thing; actually getting it to talk to something else, perhaps even [Scott]’s Heathkit H-8 computer.

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Printing Christmas Cards The Hard Way

Printing customized Christmas cards is a trivial matter today: choose a photo, apply a stock background or border, add the desired text, and click a few buttons. Your colorful cards arrive in a few days. It may be the easiest way, but it’s definitely no where near as cool as the process [linotype] used this season. (Editor’s note: skip the Imgur link and go straight for the source!)

The first task was to create some large type for the year. [linotype] laser printed “2018” then used an iron to transfer toner to the end of a piece of scrap maple flooring. Carving the numbers in relief yielded ready-to-go type, since the ironing process took care of the necessary mirroring step. The wood block was then cut to “type high” (0.918 inches; who knew?) using a compositor’s table saw – with scales graduated in picas, of course.

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Save A Linotype Machine For Future Generations

The journalist’s art is now one of the computer keyboard and the internet connection, but there was a time when it involved sleepless nights over a manual typewriter followed by time spent reviewing paper proofs freshly inked from hot lead type. Newspapers in the golden age of print media once had entire floors of machinery turning text into custom metal type on the fly, mechanical masterpieces in the medium of hot lead of which Linotype were the most famous manufacturer.

Computerised desktop publishing might have banished the Linotype from the newsroom in the 1970s or 1980s, but a few have survived. One of the last working Linotypes in Europe can be found in a small print workshop in Vienna, and since its owner is about to retire there is a move to save it for posterity through a crowdfunding campaign. This will not simply place it in a museum as a dusty exhibit similar to the decommissioned Monotype your scribe once walked past every day in the foyer of the publishing company she then worked for, instead it will ensure that the machine continues to be used on a daily basis producing those hot metal slugs of type.

Fronting the project is [Florian Kaps], whose pedigree in the world of resurrecting analogue technologies was established by his role in saving the Polaroid film plant in Enschede, Netherlands. There are a variety of rewards featuring Linotype print, and at the time of writing the project is 46% funded with about four weeks remaining. If you are curious about the Linotype machine and its operation, we’ve previously brought you an account of the last day of hot metal printing at the New York Times.

The Haunting Last Day Of Hot Metal Typesetting At The New York Times

The short film, Farewell — ETAOIN SHRDLU, produced in 1978 covers the very last day the New York Times was set for printing in the old way, using hot metal typesetting.

We’ve covered the magic of linotype machines before, but to see them used as they were in their prime is something else. They saw nearly a hundred years of complete industry dominance. Linotype machines had entire guilds dedicated to their use. Tradesmen built their lives around them. For some of us we see the rise and fall of technology as an expected thing. Something that happens normally, sometimes within spans that cover only a few short years. Yet it’s still a strange thing to see a technology so widely used shut down so completely and relatively rapidly.

To make it even stranger, the computer that replaced the linotype machines is so alien to the technology used today that even it is an oddity. In the end only the shadow of the ‘new’ technologies — showcased as state of the art in this video — are still in use. Nonetheless it’s important to see where we came from and to understand what it means to innovate. Plus, you never know when you see an old idea that’s ready for a bit of refurbishment. Who knows, maybe part of the linotype’s spirit is ready to be reborn, and all it takes is a clever hacker to see it.

Oh, and that title — ‘etaoin shrdlu‘ — is the linotype equivalent of ‘qwerty’. The first two columns of keys on the linotype machine make up those two words.

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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.

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