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Celebrating Linotype: 125 Years Since Its Debut

Linotype machines were rendered obsolete in the 1970s – replaced by newer technologies — but they have never been completely forgotten.

The summer of 2011 marks 125 years since the Linotype machine’s innovation entered the newspaper world — the New York Tribune first brought the machine into its operations in July 1886. Before its invention and implementation, no newspaper could easily run longer than a few pages, but the new way of producing text marked a radical evolution in the history of printing and typography. Thomas Edison called it the Eighth Wonder of the World.

A German immigrant named Ottmar Mergenthaler invented it in the 1880s and continued to promote and expand its use until dying in Baltimore in 1899.

The Linotype’s power and potential involved transferring a line of text (typed with meticulous care by a Linotypist onto a special 90-key keyboard) creating a “line o’ type” that could be rapidly printed onto many subsequent pages, thanks to the genius of matrices and hot metal.

Thousands of Linotypists learned the new trade and rose in stature. Their duty was to type out the newspaper text in order to allow for quick printing. By 1895, London newspaper proprietors assembled to form an association of typesetters. Their numbers swelled throughout the 20th century, with 25,000 of the machines in use by 1911 and 33,000 by 1916, according to The Linotype Bulletin.

By 1954, the number of Linotype machines in operation exploded to 100,000. The invention had become a critical part of producing newspapers, ads, books and more. Furthermore, typesetters’ wages were “relatively prosperous” in mid-century America. Those practicing Linotype even acted as unauthorized editors of the newspapers.

Often, they were known as “travelers” — men who moved across the country from print shop to print shop. They spoke about every good-sized town in the country, and they always delivered their judgments in terms of the bars, women, and hotels, as well as the print shops and newspapers.

Men who have traveled that much (and most travelers were men) had a sophistication that transcended formal education, and a brash confidence in their skills. They had colorful nicknames like Two Star, Dirty Shirt, Silver Fox, Speedy, Ten High, Wandering Jew, Pete the Tramp.

At the point in time that marks a century and a quarter since the introduction of Linotype, a resurgence of interest has occurred. Doug Wilson has put together Linotype: the Film, which tells the machine’s history and collects stories about its role.

So far, the filmmaker has shown bits and pieces of the documentary at public screenings, and a slick trailer is available for viewing online. The most ubiquitous sign of the Linotype may be right on your computer’s word processor. For the machine’s 100th centennial in 1986, Adobe designed a special serif font, Linotype Centennial, to honor the fading world of typesetters.

And despite the trade’s death, the company behind it never actually disappeared. Mergenthaler Linotype Company lives on as one as a marketer and distributor of fonts, offering “one of the world’s largest font libraries, with more than 10,500 high-quality typefaces,” according to its website.

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