The Linotype typesetter
changed the printing world

Pho­to Cred­it:    Linotype-vorne-deutsches-museum.jpg, by Clemens PFEIFFER, Vien­na. 
Anno­ta­tions by Paul Koning

It was the inven­tion that absolute­ly pow­ered the mass-print­ing indus­try. Thomas Edi­son, it is said, called it the “Eighth Won­der of the World.”  Invent­ed in Bal­ti­more, Mary­land in the 1880s—by a Ger­man immi­grant named Ottmar Mergenthaler—every large news­pa­per owned one or more Lino­type type­set­ting machines, each oper­at­ed by a skilled jour­ney­man. There were 25,000 of the machines in use in the Unit­ed States by 1911, 33,000 by 1916, and more than 100,000 by 1954 .

The key­board had a direct action open­ing a series of chan­nels in the “Mag­a­zine” which con­tained brass matri­ces bear­ing impressed let­ters. The oper­a­tor depressed the let­ter on the key­board, releas­ing these matri­ces one let­ter at a time into an “Assem­bler”.

When the assem­bler was full the oper­a­tor pressed a lever and the machine took the sin­gle line of assem­bled matri­ces and rotat­ed them to the mold posi­tion. Molten lead, at 550 degrees Fahren­heit, filled the mold and took an impres­sion from the matri­ces. The com­plete line of type was then eject­ed as a “slug” or strip of lead, into a receiv­ing galley.

The “Ele­va­tor” then lift­ed the matri­ces to a “Dis­trib­u­tor” bar at the top of the Lino­type machine. The bar car­ried the matri­ces along the top of the machine until they were over the mouth of the chan­nel to which they belonged, where they were released back into the machine by means of dif­fer­ent com­bi­na­tions of teeth that oper­at­ed like a key-and-lock arrangement.

Expe­ri­enced type­set­ters were expect­ed to pro­duce about 30 words per minute. 

The keyboard of the Linotype machine

Lino­type­’s pow­er involved the com­po­si­tion of a line of text —hence the name “line o’ type”— using a spe­cial 90-key key­board and near­by spe­cial trays for spe­cial char­ac­ters not com­mon­ly used, such as math symbols.

The key­board was arranged by the fre­quen­cy of the let­ters’ use. Row 1, from the top, was e – t – a – o – i – n. Row 2 was s – h – r – d – l – u.  The white keys were used to set cap­i­tal let­ters, the black for low­er case and the blue car­ried sym­bols and spe­cial char­ac­ters.
Often, when Lino­type oper­a­tors made a mis­take, they would run a fin­ger down the first two rows to pro­duce the words “etaoin shrd­lu” in the line of type; a clear warn­ing to print­ers that it should be discarded.

News­pa­pers and mag­a­zines, and a host of print­ing plants around the world, relied on the Lino­type to set the type they need­ed for columns of type. Today, the Lino­type machines are gone. They’ve gone to the scrap met­al yard and the tens of thou­sands of once rel­a­tive­ly pros­per­ous Lino­type oper­a­tors are also gone.

This pho­to­graph, tak­en prob­a­bly between1940-1950 (of the New York Times com­pos­ing room?) from “Lino­type: The Film”, shows a bat­tery of eight Lino­type machines. Anoth­er bat­tery is vis­i­ble to the right. This film is about a machine from the past, but that does not mean this is a sen­ti­men­tal fact-film lament­ing the loss of a technology.

The film was exten­sive­ly researched. Dis­cuss­sions with experts—from small town print­ers to type­set­ters for nation­al publications—helped the pro­duc­ers present much about the his­to­ry of the Lino­type and how the machine works.

There were more than 100 Lino­type machines at the New York Times and hun­dreds of skilled oper­a­tors. Note the cloth­ing of the jour­ney­men. Three-piece suits and ties!

The Lino­type machines have died, gone to the scrap yard. The for­mer oper­a­tors’ skills were not passed down to a new gen­er­a­tion of operators.

Two mod­els of Lino­type machine were built in Cana­da, the first man­u­fac­tured by the Lino­type Com­pa­ny in Mon­tréal in 1891 and the sec­ond by the Cana­di­an-Amer­i­can Lino­type Com­pa­ny Ltd of Toron­to after it acquired the Mon­tréal firm. Both mod­els were export­ed to Aus­tralia, South Amer­i­ca and South Africa in com­pe­ti­tion with Mer­gen­thaler Lino­type of the US.