Hot Type Eulogy

August 14, 2011

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!


Lost Illusions

March 9, 2009


I started to read Balzac’s Les Illusions Perdues in college, dropped it, and finished it a few years later.  I found it dull.  I guess I had some illusions of my own.  I have just finished reading it again, and I think it’s one of the greatest novels I know.  (Franco Moretti regards it as the greatest novel.)  Reading it is like being dropped into the heavy molten magma of life, as the editor of my Modern Library edition refers to it.  Or was it lava?

This long story has three parts and turns on the adventures of Lucien Chardon, a vain but talented provincial young man, our poet,  who has the singular luck of being gifted with the brilliant good looks of Apollo.  He and his friend, David Sechard, dream of success:  he as a poet lionized in Paris; David as an inventor rich on the basis of a new paper manufacturing process.   Lucien makes his way to Paris as the would-be lover of the local aristocratic belle,  but she dumps him when the dazzling city shows him up as something of a provincial clod.  He has much to learn.

Lucien falls in with some serious intellectual types, pledged to poverty and truth, but he quickly moves on to richer pastures, despite a few moral qualms.  He rises like a rocket in the cut throat world of journalism, moves in  with a young, gorgeous, adoring actress, wreaks havoc with the reputations of his former patroness, and plots his entry to the ranks of the nobility on the basis of his mother’s family name.  Meanwhile, his enemies, who have no illusions, plot his ruin.  His fall is as rapid as his rise, and in his selfishness, he manages to drag down his old friend by forging some checks in his name.  The third part of the book narrates his ignominious return home, and the struggles of David to make good on his inventions.

The brutally sharp dealing and downright fraud by which David Sechard is parted from his money and his patent rights is portrayed in detail that is both excruciating and exasperating.  Clearly, Balzac was writing from more than a literary point of view – he is passionate in his portrayal of the materialistic and cyncial values of the actors.  In the end, David comes out all right, but not wealthy, and is happily married to Lucien’s beautiful sister. 

Lucien resolves on suicide, but those who find his note understand that if he does not end his life immediately, he will be safe.  His shame and remorse won’t last too long – he’ll start building castles in the air again.  As it is, on the brink, he is picked up by a traveller, Vautrin, Cheat-Death, Carlos Herrera, the ominous, Machiavellian, homosexual operator who moves in and out of Balzac’s Human Comedy.  Herrera buys Lucien’s body and soul for the amount of David’s debts and the promise of revenge.   

Next stop, A Harlot High and Low or  Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes, where the adventures of Lucien continue!

Philosophy of Dots

February 19, 2008


What is the difference between a photograph and a painting, from the point of view of the observer? If the observer is a machine, no difference at all, just pixels, impulses on rods and cones on our retinas (mine don’t work so well, being colorblind), eventually rendered on paper as printers dots (cf. Roy Lichtenstein) or as more pixels somewhere else. From woman, to photograph, to pixel, to painting, to man… A continuum of energy, of phenomena, of perception by consciousness. So, the world is really just energy, just one darn phenomenon after another, when you get down to it.

When you get down into it, the material world is mostly empty space, as is the universe, when you get out into it.. Difficult to find a hard surface on which to lay one’s head, or pound one’s fist. So, relax. No need to define everything, when this or that began, where those things are (i.e. have their being). Everything just is, as we perceive it, and as we create it with consciousness. The funny thing is, consciousness is itself created, so, as Lewis Thomas once remarked, we humans (and whatever else is out there scratching its head and thinking on some other planet) are actually the material world’s reflection on itself. Well, he said it better, and for someone who said it at MUCH greater length, go to Hegel.

Man his own nature never yet could sound,
He knows not whence he is, nor whither bound.
Atoms tormented on this earthly ball,
The sport of fate, by death soon swallowed all.
But thinking atoms, who with piercing eyes
Have measured the whole circuit of the skies…

from Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake by Voltaire