Voice of the Industry
A Slightly Belated Happy 125th Birthday to the Linotype, Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Miraculous Machine
By Patrick Henry
Published: July 13, 2011
The recent Independence Day observance passed largely without notice of another historical milestone that the long holiday weekend contained: the 125th anniversary of the introduction of the Linotype Type Casting Machine on July 3, 1886, in New York City. The huge importance of Ottmar Mergenthaler’s invention needs no reiteration to readers of this blog. But, sadly, awareness of the Linotype among the general public probably is right up there with the average person’s knowledge of the Baghdad Battery or the aeolipile.
That could begin to change with the upcoming premiere of Linotype: the Film, a feature-length documentary about the amazing device that the filmmakers like to call “the Twitter of 1886.” In production since last August, Linotype: the Film was shot in U.S. and foreign locations where a handful of the machines are still in operation. Post-production, now under way, is expected to be complete in time for release before the end of the year.
“This film is about a machine from the past,’’ the filmmakers write, “but that does not mean this is a sentimental fact-film lamenting the loss of a technology. We are compelled to dig deeper, and find what the Linotype has to say about the present and future.” They note, however, the risk of losing connection to the Linotype if its few remaining skilled operators cannot pass what they know to a new generation of craftspeople.
"The future of the Linotype is uncertain,” they acknowledge. “If there is no one to run these machines, they will only survive in museums, sitting silent and gathering dust.
This article from The Atlantic offers a revererential salute to Mergenthaler’s invention on its 125th birthday. It notes, among other curiosities, that many old-time hot-metal typesetters were topers—hard-drinking, hard-working itinerants who plied their trade on the road and weren’t shy about making on-the-fly alterations to copy they didn’t approve of.
Anyone who has been around long enough to have seen Linotypes in action has at least one good thing to say about the weight of his years. My college newspaper was set this way at a letterpress plant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where we student editors read still-wet galleys and page proofs pulled from lockups. I don’t remember any drinking being done by the typesetters, but I’ll never forget the night one of them unwrapped and proceeded to lunch upon what appeared to be half a roasted sheep’s head.
Later, I worked briefly for Arthur Birsh, the publisher of Playbill, who swore that nothing beat the Linotype for making the text edits that had to be worked into his theatrical bulletin (then printed in a letterpress plant in Queens) whenever there was a cast substitution or some other change in the program of a play. Around this time, I wrote a story about two commercial letterpress plants that lost long-standing contracts to print the strip-like ballot cards for New York City’s voting machines.
Like Mr. Birsh, these printers relied on hot metal to make the abrupt changes that the job frequently required, and even the city officials I interviewed admitted that nothing performed this trick better than swapping out Linotype slugs. But, price was price, and the job was awarded to a lower-bidding offset plant in Massachusetts where phototypesetting had replaced Mergenthaler’s method.
When Linotype: the Film premieres, I’m going to try to be in line to see it, hoping that the line will be a long one. The movie's progress can be followed at its web site as well as at Facebook and Twitter.