In this digital age, the actual act of printing becomes an afterthought. We type and then hit print, assured that the lasers housed in our sophisticated printers will deliver us our perfectly-written piece. It seems ages ago that the very idea of printing words was a complicated ordeal, involving sophisticated (and incredibly cool-looking) machines.
Linotype machines were the industry-standard for the better part of the 20th century. They were mammoth machines which used “hot metal” to create complete sentences for manual printing. The printer would type the words into the machine, and the machine would create a unique piece of metal to transfer the ink to the page. The actual mechanics of the machine are fascinating, and if you’re into the sort of thing, you can check out this page for a complete breakdown of the function of each part. Here is a great Flickr photo album by Adam Foster with images of an existing machine.
A new documentary, Linotype: The Film, explores the origins and importance of a machine that changed the world, but has fallen into disuse. Thomas Edison called the Linotype machine the “Eighth Wonder of the World.” The documentary “tells the charming and emotional story of the people connected to the Linotype and how it impacted the world.” It will be released on DVD later this year.
Most Linotype machines were scrapped after the advent of quicker printing methods, and there are very few machines left out there. The original operators of the machine are dying off, and without a new generation of printers, we might lose the art of manual printing forever.
So what? New technology replaces older technology all the time. But maybe by reflecting on older forms of printing we can learn things from a time when words were not so cheap. In the digital age, we take for granted the ability to transmit our words across the globe in an instant. But for hundreds of years authors chose their words carefully — it cost a good deal to print something.
By learning the history of printing, we can appreciate the exciting era we live in, where we can print and distribute our work with the click of a button.