Linotype machines are awesome

Last night, my husband and I went to the Minnesota State Fair and stumbled upon a demonstration of a linotype machine, a semi-automated, mechanical printing system that was used by newspapers and magazines (and basically everything else) from the end of the 19th century through the 1970s. It's a completely mesmerizing piece of equipment. An operator types out a line of text and the machine responds by collecting molds that match each letter and fitting them together. Then, it fills the mold with molten metal and dumps out the freshly minted block, ready for the printer ... before automatically re-racking all the letter molds so they're ready for the next line of text.

It's incredibly cool and I could have watched it work for hours. But then my husband thought to ask about what metal they were melting and pouring into the molds. Turns out, it was lead ... and my pregnant butt was hustled out of the building. I found a great video to show you, though — a 1960 educational film meant for future linotype operators. The full thing is way longer than you actually probably want to watch, but I've set it up to start right at the beginning of a really great explanation of how the thing works. Watch it from where the video kicks in to about 6:30, and you'll get a good 3-minute demonstration. You can also see linotypes doing their thing in the trailer for a documentary that Rob posted about a few years ago.

Also, there's at least one newspaper in the United States that's still being printed this way! (Thanks, Kyle Whitmire!)

Video Link

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  1. Just mostly lead. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Type_metal . Getting the casting alloy to have all the right properties was actually a really big deal.
    I guess it's better to be safe than sorry, but at normal casting temperatures the vapor pressure of lead is zero. Unless there was observable dust of some kind I would have stayed.

  2. I had a chance to watch a Linotype in operation as a kid and it was mesmerizing. Unlike the "black box" that is my computer, you can SEE everything happening. The matrices falling into line, sliding over to the rotating mold, and then being picked up by a long arm and put back to the top of the magazine, where you can hear them falling into the proper slot as they are propelled along by a long screw drive. It made a huge impression. It seems that the only thing that they're still used for is embossed invitations, where you still need type that stands up from the surface rather than offset printing. They also made typewriters with Linotype keyboards for the operators to fill out forms and do the sort's of tasks that you need typewriters for. EATOIN SHRDLU !

  3. As someone who is not the neatest typer (so far this comment has had 4 corrections), this machine is giving me a panic attack.

  4. My wife and I stumbled across a linotype machine on permanent exhibit at the Baltimore Museum of Industry (the linotype was invented in Baltimore). There's a fellow who grew up working on them who gives demonstrations. There's a great 5 minute youtube clip from cspan about it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GvzqBb6o9cI. If you get a chance to stop at the BMI, it is well worth it. Baltimore was a center of industry in the late 20th, early 21st centuries, and the museum is overflowing with similar mechanical wonders invented in the city.

  5. My dad used to work on a Linotype so I sent him a link to your post. Here's his response:

    That was a really cool video. I wish I had seen it before I started
    learning the trade. It was a fascinating piece of machinery. Too bad
    they didn't show the pitfalls of operating one. When it wasn't
    operated correctly you had a gigantic mess of lead squirting all over
    the place and causing several hours of cleanup and repair. That's
    about all I ever accomplished on a linotype. Thank God for the advent
    of what was called "cold type", (in other words, no hot lead). I'm
    not sure I could have ever mastered the keyboard (which is totally
    different than a typewriter) and the intricacies of the linotype
    machine. Now I want to see a video on the composition of the lead
    type into page makeup done by the floor men. I was learning that part
    also. I could do the simple composition, but the intricate page
    layout of an advertisement or chart could be really tricky and amazing
    to watch when a journeyman floor man was at work. It all brings back
    some great memories.

    Just thought some of you might find it interesting.

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