Linotype: The Film

The characteristics of a production process often become desirable when the process becomes obsolete; "flaws" become symbolic of the good taste and expense that old ways acquire when freed from commercial significance. But it's not just a cult of the hand-made. Even the heaviest and most unwieldy machinery can attain the same same cachet. Whatever the word for this technological nostalgia is, Linotype is surely the most extreme example. [Linotype: The Film] (Previously)


  1. I had a chance to see one operating up close and personal when I was maybe 10 or 12, and it made a HUGE impression. A ginormous machine, with all sorts of exposed, moving parts whose principles of operation are pretty easily comprehended. It was AWSOME.

  2. This machine is one of the most complex, Rube Goldberg-like machines ever to achieve production status. Other than semiconductor fabs, of course.

  3. I submit the term “anachrophilia” or maybe “techno-anachrophilia” for technological nostalgia.

  4. I’ve had the pleasure to play with one of these in art school. Fifteen years later I wish I’d spent more time with it and done something interesting with it. But on a purely experiential level, it was very cool.

  5. The Baltimore Museum of Industry has one of these. If you hit them on the right day, you can get your name cast in lead.

  6. I used to have one of these. My friend was closing his shop, maybe 20 years ago, and I had the mad idea to use it for a particular application. My friends said, “what the hell are you doing buying this giant contraption, it’s obsolete”. I’m sorry to say they were right.
    It sure was it fun while I had it. But you’re basically sitting over a pot of molten lead the whole time you’re using it. Can’t be good for you; printing is full of stuff not good for you.
    Talk about ‘moving parts’, this machine is full of them. Brilliantly cast pieces of iron, keyed brass molds for every character, ingenious devices to create variable spaces between words. But I always felt I could fix whatever might go wrong. Very satisfying when working properly. Quite unlike the thing I’m using now. The sound was like some mad modern music. I could have kept it, but it takes up a lot of room. I’m sorry to say I wound up junking it, and selling the lead and brass for scrap.

  7. I used to work in small museum dedicated to printing and got to use one of these on a semi-regular basis for several years. It’s deeply satisfying to see the cast slugs gradually forming a page of type as the whole thing rattles and shakes and gives the impression it may well explode any second… probably my best work-related memories to date… 8-)

    1. Vanwall: Absolutely. Both the keyboard, and the short story.

      Hot lead is dead, alas… except for a few folks who have the dedication to historical technology to keep it alive. I’m not surprised at all that the latter still exist — I know folks who are keeping a hand-set print shop in operation just because It’s The Right Thing To Do, and really it’s no different than the folks who lovingly preserve classic cars or old woodworking tools.

      Or old musical instruments, for that matter.

      And yes, printing of the time was “full of things that can hurt you”, as were (and are) most industrial processes. Like fire, you learn to treat it with respect, and you _continue_ to treat it with respect, and it will serve you well; get careless and you’re likely to get hurt.

      As far as the lead goes… Hm. Judging from the folks I have known from that generation, painters may have been getting a heavier dose of lead than printers.

  8. Actually, 1952’s “Park Row”, Sam Fuller’s low, low budget, two-fisted tribute to the early typeset days of NYC papers, is a great mechanical fest – with an early version of a Linotype apperaing to upset the apple cart – and a great movie. Wait’ll you see typesetter savant – who can’t read!

  9. My dad used to work at a newspaper years ago, and when it closed down he got to take a very large one of these home, where he set it up in our garage. Took up most of the room and he still used it for years to do print jobs for local companies. I remember more than once being told to stay away from the molten lead on the side of it…

  10. Back in college (around 1978) my design class took a trip to Chicago. One of our stops was RyderType. They had a large room full of Linotype machines going almost 24/7. The noise in that room was crazy but oh so cool. Sort of a metallic symphony of intricate, well-oiled machines happily going about their business. I still cherish the large slug of headline type an operator ran off for me that says “Design”.

  11. The Monotype machine, however, was superior for high-quality typesetting due to its ability to set kerned pairs and scientific notation, and the ability to correct one letter instead of an entire line.


    However, I have a fondness for a particular Linotype Janson that was used for many, many trade paperbacks for many years which featured a strange bump in “T”, and which was never digitized in that way.

  12. I fell in love with the Linotype. I never quite mastered setting “straight matter” quickly, but I did set type for ads. The machine was a marvel and I miss its clanks and clatters. I even forgave it for the “squirt” that sent molten lead into my shoe. The newspaper business was never the same after the Linotypes were sent to the scrap heat.

  13. The Baltimore Museum of Industry also has a typewriter with a linotype keyboard that was for the use of printers, since for the most party they didn’t know from qwerty. Perhaps for filling out their timecards. And I have to point out that in many shops the practice was to add thin space to the spacebar after the period so that even in variable fonts with justified type, there was extra space between sentances. Not quite a double space, but wider nonetheless.

  14. And just a note to point out that just like the qwerty keyboard, the linotype keyboard is designed around the mechanism, not for easy typing. Qwerty was designed so that keys that were typed in frequent succession weren’t next to each other, and the linotype was designed so that the most frequently used characters were dropped back into the magazine first, thus the left most keys are the lower-case etaon shrdlu.

  15. I feel privileged as I was lucky enough to play with one in my junior high school print shop. It had a very satisfying operation from what I can remember – very kerchunky and lots of noise.

    We learned composition, type setting and we had intaglio, offset, and other types of printers. Guess that’s nostalgia these days but I think many disciplines could be enhanced by some time with the devices and techniques that were the historical backbone of modern ones.

  16. My Dad would have stayed in the Navy if he hadn’t gotten the apprenticeship he wanted as a Linotype operator.

    He got squirted by molten lead once and was laid up for a week with heavy metal poisoning. Then he decided proofreading was a better career.

    He died earlier this year, 83 and married for 50 years.

    I miss my dad.

  17. I have to say that’s very interesting espically since I love older things.I liked seeing my brother Bud in the video too.Shirley (the old sister)

Comments are closed.