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  • December 16th, 2010

The Machine To End All Machines

By Joel M. Vance

The noise was near-deafening, but the operators were impervious to it.  They were graduates from the Missouri School for the Deaf and heard nothing.  But I can hear it still, in my mind, a constant metallic clatter that is unmistakable to anyone who worked around a print shop a half-century ago.

My venue was a small town newspaper, The Mexico, Missouri, Evening Ledger. I was the sports editor and wrote my stories on sleazy copy paper that was of such poor quality that it seemed ready to disintegrate even before it came out the other end as hot type, spilling from a Linotype machine in dizzying profusion.

Each of the four Linotype machines in the print shop stood seven feet tall and squatted six feet from side to side and front to back, behemoths like something from a science fiction movie.  Their noise spilled into the newsroom every time anyone opened the swinging door between the two rooms.

This was light years from today’s muted newsroom and print shop where everything is clean and pixels rule.  We were an anachronism waiting to happen in 1959.

The Linotype had been around for more than 60 years, and my typewriter, a manual Royal, had been around longer than that.  There was no such thing as a computer.  The tentacles of modern technology were just beginning to creep into newspaper production.  “Digital” if anything meant toes and fingers.

Many had tried to invent a workable typesetting machine (Mark Twain went bankrupt investing his fortune in one that didn’t work), but no one had succeeded until Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant, developed the first crude Linotype in 1884.

The marvelous Mergenthaler machine had a run of nearly a century, from the 1890s to the 1970s before modern photo-based printing supplanted the clattery old machines.  After 10 years, at the age of 32, Mergenthaler had refined his machine and Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Herald-Tribune, allegedly exclaimed, “Ottmar, you’ve done it again!  A line o’ type!”  And thus the name….

More than 100,000 Linotypes would dominate newspaper pressrooms for the next 60 or more years.  Mergenthaler became a victim of the White Plague, tuberculosis, and died young at 45 in 1899.

Setting a line of type on the Linotype is a fairly simple process on the surface, but like the operation of the human body, an incredibly complex one behind the scenes.  Everything happens amid a constant clunking and clattering of moving parts and tumbling matrices that has a manic quality, as if the Linotype were a robot on amphetamines.

There were four Linotypes in the Ledger pressroom and usually at least one operator was trying to clear a malfunction—with 5,000 working parts, a Linotype was a breakdown waiting to happen.  Although the operators were mute, they could cuss with body language as artistically as anyone with speech.

I floundered at first but then it began to make sense, like being exposed to a foreign language on a daily basis.  I learned to read type in its inverted state, put the stories in the right place and do it all before the ever-present daily newspaper deadline.

The deadline was immutable and there was no absolution for missing one.  You closed at 11 a.m. or you would shortly be invited to take up another line of work.

Somehow it all worked six days a week.  There was only one time it didn’t–the assassination of President Kennedy.  It happened just as the paper was going to press.  Immediately the front page was void and the press idled, while the newsroom frantically remade everything.

My sports page had gone to bed and I was ready to go home when the news editor shouted, “The President has been shot!”  The teletype machine rattled off Associated Press stories a at 60 words per minute.  I could type faster than that, but the machine couldn’t.

None of our Linotype machines could set the 96-point headline we ran: “President Slain.”  It had to be hand-set.  A pressman, his hands trembling, pulled each letter from a type case and spelled out the dreadful words.  It was a moment of history revisited because pressmen around the country had done exactly the same thing on April 15, 1865, the day Abraham Lincoln died.

The teletype machine chattered and disgorged a tangled pile of perforated tape, containing dreadful words from Dallas.  The Linotype machines spewed their jangling torrent of brass matrices, hot lead poured against them and the slugs tumbled into the type trays to deliver the worst news we’d had in our lifetime. The cacophony, always there even with good news, seemed louder and more threatening, echoing the disorientation of a country turned upside-down.

We were on the verge of losing our Linotypes to the digital age, but we lost something more important that day.  We lost our innocence.


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  1. Jo Schaper

    December 23rd, 2010 at 8:11 pm


    My first print shop job in St. Louis still ran a Linotype and Heidelbergs when I left in 1986, because federal law required that the covers of RR tariff sheets where hot type. The interiors could be offset, but not the covers. That mostly changed when RRs were deregulated and went onto shipping contracts.

    The rattle and the crashing noise and the creakiness all ring true, but don’t underestimate the acrid odor of melting lead, slightly sulfuric, and metallic smoke sharp on the tongue…hence the name “printer’s devil.” And the burned holes in the apron and shoes of the poor soul who ran the infernal machine…glad to have had a taste of all that. Incidentally, my grandmother’s maiden name was Mergenthaler…I don’t know if Ottmar was any relation.

  2. Cliff Shelby

    December 24th, 2010 at 9:23 am


    Great story, Joel, and it recalled a lot of memories for me. The noise and smell of the type room differs greatly from the hum and ozone smell of today’s print shop.

    Those old Linotypes could malfunction and squirt a stream of molten lead across the room. The danger kept everyone on their toes. Outside the type room real profanity was often heard when some hapless soul would tip over a type cart on the way to the press and spill a whole page of set type all over the floor.

    A printer friend in Bull Shoals, AR still uses an old Heidelberg for blind embossing on small run cards and letterheads/envelopes. Lots of print shops still have and use them.

    Thanks for the memories.

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