Today, let’s take a closer look at the Linotype machine. Before the invention of the linotype, type was set by hand, individually, manually, letter-by-letter, using a composing stick. Skilled typesetters, called compositors, were much in demand, and could set type much faster than you or I could, but the distribution of information was severely limited by the speed at which humans could assemble text by hand. Before the invention of the Linotype, no newspaper in world had more than eight pages.
The Linotype machine was the first machine in the world that could quickly set entire lines of type for use in printing and as such revolutionized the medium. Thomas Edison called it the “Eighth Wonder of the World”. Its name comes from the fact that it casts an entire line-o-type at once, as one solid piece of metal, called a slug. Newspaper publishing was revolutionized, as it was now possible for a relatively small number of workers to set many pages on a daily basis. Linotype became the industry standard from its invention in the late 1800’s through the 1960’s and 70’s, when letterpress from metal type was replaced by offset printing from photographic films and plates.
It was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German-born inventor who began as a watchmaker’s apprentice. Many inventors in the 19th century had tackled the problem of how to speed up the typesetting process. Mergenthaler’s solution in 1884 resulted in one machine that assembled many different type molds, called matrices, cast each line of type into a solid slug, then dispersed each of the matrices into their unique storage slot, ready for the next job. The linotype operator enters text in via a 90-character keyboard, with separate keys for upper and lower case letters. Each keystroke activates a matrix from above the keyboard, which is released and travels through the machine to be assembled into a line with other matrices in the order in which they are keyed in. Once the line is completed, the operator presses a lever which causes the line of matrices to be transported as a group into the casting section of the machine, where the type is cast in molten type metal. Afterwards each matrix is returned to its proper slot by the distributor.
The matrices can be distributed properly and reused by the machine due to their unique form. The matrices have a pattern of teeth cut into them at the bottom; they hang by these teeth from a part called the distributor bar. They are carried along this bar back to their proper slot, as long as there are teeth to hold them to the bar. As soon as the matrix reaches the point where its teeth corresponds to a cut-away tooth on the distributor bar, it is no longer supported and it drops into its slot.
According to Wikipedia, “Mergenthaler reportedly got the idea for the brass matrices that would serve as molds for the letters from wooden molds used to make “Springerle,” which are German Christmas cookies.”
|Child labor used in the name of literacy.|
Today it’s rare to see a linotype machine outside of a printing history museum. There is, (luckily!)a film made in honor of the linotype, called, Linotype: The Film, which you can learn more about on their excellent website here, and watch the trailer, which includes exciting footage of the linotype in action, as well as learn much, much more than you could ever imagine on their resources page.
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