Hot Metal

Just imagine that it’s 1880, or thereabouts. Since 1450, printing has been performed in more-or-less the same way: with moveable type based on the principles developed by Johannes Gutenberg. A compositor would take letters and symbols from a type case one by one, and arrange them (upside-down) on a composing stick.

Type case and composing stick

Type case and composing stick [photo: Willi Heidelbach]

Clamp all your letters together, suitably spaced, in a galley, and ink it up to produce a quick proof… then load it into a printing press and away you go (eventually, after care has been taken to ensure quality).

Once printing is complete, somebody has to disassemble the carefully-arranged type and file it away in the relevant type case. There’s a separate case for each typeface: different sizes, bold text, italics, capitals… and each individual letter has to be filed away in the correct pocket. They aren’t labelled. (And God help you if you should ever drop a type case, mixing up its contents…)

Typesetting gets a makeover

It seemed to James O. Clephane that this sequence of activities was an impediment. He was a court reporter in the USA, and he’d been impressed by the development of the typewriter (in 1868) but rapid note-taking didn’t help much if your notes then had to be handed to a compositor for typesetting before printing.

Fortunately, Clephane brought in German-born inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler. His major contribution was the idea that groups of letters could be cast on demand, so as to form a whole line of type in a single piece. It was a short step from “line o’ type” to the name of his machine: Linotype.

For more than four centuries, through the Renaissance and the Age of Enlightenment, the printing press had been the engine-room of the knowledge economy: Mergenthaler supercharged that engine. His machine and its descendants would dominate the industry until the 1960s… and yet, to modern eyes, it’s completely insane.

Linotype machine

Feeling more like an organist than a typesetter, I sit at the controls…

Another Gutenberg?

Linotype begins with a mass of tiny brass dies called matrices, held in a magazine. (Or a number of magazines: one for each typeface.) Each matrix looks a bit like a flattened molar, with a letter formed on its crown. Depress a button on a keyboard and the corresponding matrix drops from the magazine. The machine is powered by a single motor (with a lot of belt drives, and gears), and the newly-arrived letter is borne away to one side, to join its brethren like a collection of trucks in a siding. You can look at the arrangement of matrices, to proof-read the line you are about to commit to print, and doctor the set of letters if you made a typo.

So far, so incredibly complicated… but here comes the crazy part. Once your line of text is complete, you depress a lever and the assembled collection of letters is drawn into a built-in die casting machine. The matrices are clamped in place, forming one side of a mould cavity, and a piston forces molten type metal (an alloy of lead, tin and antimony) into the resulting mould. This produces a ‘slug’ with lettering (in mirror writing, fit for printing) down one side. In just nine seconds, the slug is ejected such that it forms one line in the block of text being set up for printing… and the craziness continues.

The crucible for melting type metal

What workplace isn’t enhanced with a pot of molten metal?

The matrices, those individual letter dies, need to go back into the magazine to be used again. For this, each matrix is lifted up and carried along the distribution bar. Pre-Linotype, the distributor was a print industry specialist who broke up the letters and returned each to the right place in the type case. Thanks to Mergenthaler this task was performed automatically, using a series of binary-coded projections on the ‘roots’ of each ‘tooth’. These ensure that each matrix drops into the correct slot in the magazine, to be used again. This happens automatically, and the Linotype operator is free to continue working in the meantime. The result was no less revolutionary than Gutenberg’s achievement, and the amount of text that could be set in a day increased immediately. Pre-Linotype, no daily newspaper in the world had more than eight pages, but afterward – a functional machine existed by 1886 – the proliferation of the written word was unstoppable.

Add a punched tape reader to drive the selection of letters automatically, and you’ve got a typesetting machine that can be driven remotely, to transcribe articles submitted via telegraph. Move over, steampunk: the truth is stranger than fiction.

Of course, it’s not perfect. For one thing, it’s noisy. It’s also huge, and if the print industry has ever heard of ergonomics, I haven’t seen any sign of it. I actually wonder if the baffling nature of the equipment is the result of generations of print professionals seeking to maintain their specialised status? Best of all, with Linotype there’s always the chance of a mishap known as a squirt, which happens when poorly-fitting matrices allow a jet of molten type metal to spray all over your trouser leg.

Keyboard on the Linotype

Ergonomics? Not so much.

If somebody asked you to come up with a machine to speed the process of typesetting, I very much doubt your first thought would be to centre it around a mass of little recirculating letters and a crucible full of lead and antimony (both toxic materials)… and yet, it works. Eighty-five years before the first microprocessor appeared, people had access to a workable technology for typesetting on the fly. You had to rely on the human being for the spell-check, but other than that, it’s brilliant.

Is it ‘green’?

Can you imagine what the health and safety people would say if the Linotype machine were proposed as a new technology nowadays? From the pot of molten metal to the mass of exposed moving parts, it’s a complete non-starter. Even so, despite the large mass of material embodied in the machine, the precision with which it had to be made, its energy consumption, noise output and so on, I’m not so sure that Linotype should be condemned on sustainability grounds. One of the key things about letterpress printing is that the raised type makes an impression on the paper being printed – and we equate that embossing with a posh job. The classiest wedding invitations, business cards and greetings cards all have something tactile about them… and the only practical, modern way to achieve the same effect (at least, as far as I know) is to use metal plates, selectively etched via lithography. Etching metals with acids is not something to be undertaken lightly, and the resulting sludge byproduct is far more of an environmental hazard than a bit of hot type metal that never needs to leave the print shop.

Linotype slug

My first Linotype slug. The font: Metro Light.

Linotype and its rivals are an anachronism, but the machines that survived being sold for scrap in the 1970s and 80s are finding a new lease of life in boutique print shops, for small, artsy jobs. The specialists who operate them don’t just preserve an interesting piece of our heritage; they use the machines commercially and competitively – sixty or more years after they were made.

Author’s note:

There was a time when a printer underwent a seven-year apprenticeship, whereas we spent just a few hours in that world, so please excuse any poor terminology found in this blog post. Mistakes are my own.

Mrs F. and I were privileged to spend a day with the good people at Prelogram, on a ‘Run the Presses’ day. By coincidence, the architecture print that was being produced during our visit was a picture of the Pantheon, the Roman building that I mentioned last week. It’s a small world…

There’s a lot more that I could write about Urban Cottage Industries and their two brands, Factorylux® industrial lighting and Prelogram® craft print. To a person interested in sustainable manufacture there were some really nice touches – perhaps deserving a post of their own at some point.


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