The leviathan at the top here is a linotype machine that produces a line of set type in hot lead. Yes, the operators punch in the letters on the keyboard, and the type is cast as they go from molten metal. This supplanted hand-set moveable type that had been around since Gutenberg, and it was the state-of-the-art in large printing operations for one hundred years. On July 2, 1978, the last ‘hot type’ edition of the New York Times, which had the biggest ‘fleet’ of linotypes in the newspaper world, was set in lead, and the paper went digital. Farewell to etaoin shrdlu is a wonderful short film that captures that evening and takes us through the entire process of composing the pages of the newspaper as it was done then, and shows how, the morning after, it continued to be done, digitally.
I have always found linotypes fascinating: they look for all the world like Rube Goldberg fantasies, but they work! And the idea of casting lines of type from molten lead on the fly seems somehow bizarre – how could such a process survive in the modern world? Well, it couldn’t. As several people remark, the linotype took the automation of mechanical printing about as far as it could go, far enough to last 100 years, but it had to end. Composing fourteen lines a minute can’t stack up in the Age of Information when computers can do it at 1000 lines per minute.
Of course, in 1978, the computer systems were used to produce printed columns of type which were still pasted up into complete pages. Like much else in the film’s tour of the brave new world of digital printing, this is gone too, and now pages are composed completely digitally, the way so many of us lay out throwaway pamphlets in Pagemaker, or whatever software is cheapest today.
Here’s the opening view in the film: the title refers to the first two columns of keys on the keyboard that an operator would hit to denote a line with an error, or something like that – I didn’t quite get it.
A close up of the lead set type of the front page of the New York Times.
Molten lead, ready to be cast into type at the press of a key. That’s why they call it hot type!