I had never heard of a linotype until I was looking into how fast news could spread in the late 19th century, and it was fascinating to learn more about this incredible piece of human invention. Throughout the 1800s, printing presses had advanced to reach incredible speeds, but typesetting remained a slow process. The linotype was the long-awaited machine that would bring speed to a whole new area of the printing process: the composing room.
From Gutenberg till the 1880s, letters of type needed to be individually cast in molds and put in order by hand, backwards and in reverse order. While an expert compositor could set type with great speed and accuracy (both metrics that often determined pay scales), it was still slow. And don’t forget the time it would take to sort the type back into their cases!
Speeding up the typesetting process was the focus of many inventors and publishers in the 1800s. A variety of machines pre-date the linotype, but linotypes, and the company that made them, dominated the market with their functionality and accessibility (and also their patents).
Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant in Baltimore, Maryland, is the man most closely associated with the linotype. An engineer by trade and a clockmaker by experience, Mergenthaler was part of the team that was contracted in 1876 to invent a copying machine to speed up the work of court stenographer. By 1884, Mergenthaler had given up on many prototypes and was instead concentrating on the concept of casting an entire line of type at once. He landed on the right set-up in 1886 and launched his own company: The Mergenthaler Printing Company. Later, it would be known world-wide as the Mergenthaler Linotype Company.
The final product did a lot more than put type in order. Sitting at the keyboard on the machine, a linotype operator would type out the letters and spaces. This would release a mold of each letter, called matrices, from the storage magazine on the top of the machine.
Once one line was completed, the machine would pour liquid metal into the mold and cast brand new type that was all connected in a line, called a slug. This is allegedly where the name “linotype” came from because it created lines o’ type.
The term “hot-type” came to refer to any machine that cast fresh type on demand from the hot metal. When early computers started to make their way into the printing world in the 1960s, they would be referred to as a “cold-type” process.
Because the slugs were set to a pre-determined length, arranging the lines into newspaper columns was a breeze!
As the final step, the linotype would take the matrices to the top of the machine and distribute them back into their place in the storage magazine. The trick to this process was giving each matrix a distinct set of notches that the machine could “read” and release at the correct storage location. Each magazine was full of a single font. If you wanted to change fonts, you had to take off the one magazine and put in another!
Linotypes were loud and messy machines, especially with 42 operating at once (the number the New-York Tribune had in 1889)!
One of the financial backers to the project was Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New-York Tribune. Therefore, it was the New-York Tribune that first tested out the linotypes in 1886. After a few years, the Tribune broadcast their success in the paper. The May 19, 1889 article recounts the earlier attempts at making a composing machine and how, even when they had linotypes in 1886, many kinks needed to be ironed out of the early models.
As the machine was continually improved upon with more models and styles in production, other newspapers scrambled to add linotypes to their printing production. Newspapers flaunted their linotypes and shared the marvel of hot-type machinery with their readers. They called it “The Century’s machine” and “almost human” in the way it operated. Some newspapers even wrote poems about it!
I am fascinated by the history of this machine, the struggle of its invention, how it worked, how it changed newspaper print work, and the community that it fostered. The operators who ran these monstrous and majestic machines knew them inside and out. They even had their own inside jokes. The Dickenson County Herald printed a notice about a “comic character in the American press” who sounds like a human being with a very strange name.
The phrase “etaoin shrdlu” is not a name but a signal phrase that a composer would type out to signify that there was a typo in the slug. The slug would need to be removed from the column and replaced with a corrected line. The letters of the signal phrase were convenient to make – they are the first two columns of the linotype keyboard. However, sometimes the typo line was left in, so if you search “etaoin shrdlu” in Chronicling America* you will get some results!
When cold-type and computer processing improved composing efficiency even more, linotype operators were forced to accept a bittersweet end to an era. In the July 3, 1978 issue of the New York Times, several articles and photos were dedicated to showing the shift from hot-type and metal, to cold-type and paper. The hand-crafted work of a newspapers would be done by a computer, replacing the last 61 of the Times’ linotypes.
Today, there are still some linotypes out there in working order. Even though their day has passed, they remain an amazing – and large! – piece of human invention.
Goble, George Corban, “The Obituary of a Machine: The Rise and Fall of Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype at U.S. Newspapers.” Indiana University, 1984.
Everett, George, “The Linotype and U.S. Daily Newspaper Journalism in the 1890’s: Analysis of a Relationship.” University of Iowa, 1972.
Linotypes aren’t the only hot-type machines. Check out more varieties at the International Printing Museum’s website.
Watch “Farewell Etaoin Shrdlu,” a documentary about the day the New York Times officially switched from hot type to cold type. Start at the 5:15 minute mark to see and hear linotypes at work!
Watch clips from “Linotype the film: in search of the eighth wonder of the world”. Their movie website has resources on the machine.
Read The Making of a Newspaper: a description of a trip through the Baltimore Sun Building by Henry Edward Warner (1924)
Look at photographs in the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Photograph Collection documenting the entire printing process of the New York Times in 1942.
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Follow Chronicling America on Twitter @ChronAmLOC.