A 1965 Linotype machine at the Deutches Museum in Munich

A 1965 Linotype machine at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. Photo from Wikipedia

The Linotype reigned world-wide as the principal typesetting machine for nearly a century. Its speed advantage as against its main competitor, the Monotype machine, is, as the name implies, that it casts a single line of type at one go. Whereas the Monotype uses a matrix case containing matrices for many characters which moves about to allow one piece of type to be cast at a time, the Linotype has multiple copies of every matrix, all stored in the magazine. In response to the keys matrices drop down in sequence, and after the complete line is assembled and cast, are then returned to the magazine via the elevator and distributor ready to be used again.

An amazingly complex piece of machinery, it nevertheless managed to run efficiently and reliably most of the time. If you really need to know all about it there’s a 76 minute-long film, The Linotype Film which is available on DVD for $24.95. For those less committed, here’s the trailer:

220px-OttmarMergenthalerOttmar Mergenthaler (1854-99), the inventor of the Linotype, came to the USA from Germany in 1872. He had been apprenticed to a watchmaker, but in America he started working for his cousin August Hahl, a printer in Washington and then Baltimore. The use of a keyboard to set type had been familiar for a while, but early typesetting machines suffered from two prohibitive drawbacks 1. distributing the type (getting it back to the start of the process after printing had been done, and 2. justifying the lines/ introducing word spacing. The solution the first problem allegedly came to Mergenthaler while he was sitting on a train: just ignore distribution and cast the type afresh for every line. Instead of laboriously distributing individual pieces of type back into a type case or magazine, you’d just melt it down en masse and use the metal over again. One of those “obvious” ideas which until it’s been thought of nobody can imagine. He allegedly got the idea of using brass matrices as molds for the type from the wooden molds used to make Springerle, German Christmas cookies, but to me this sounds a bit of a romantic stretch.

The difficulty of word spacing is that you don’t know how much space will be left over in the line, which has to be set to a constant length called for in the job specs, until you’ve finished setting it. This means you have to go back over the line and drop in word spaces to fill out the line. If you end up with too much type in a line you will then have to break the last word, turning part of it over (following the rules) to the next line. After that you’d need to go back and adjust the word spacing again to fill the measure. Clearly, no matter how slick your keyboarding was, having to stop and do this every time the end of a line in reached would slow you down — back down actually to about the same speed as a hand type setting. The elegant solution was space bands. My post Word spacing describes the Linotype spaceband which was solution Mergenthaler arrived at by the time-honored method of adopting someone else’s idea.

There were about fifty patents required to get the machine up and running. Unsurprisingly the inventor rapidly lost control of the corporation to the money guys: he died of tuberculosis at the age of 45. The first major Linotype installation (the machine had not adopted that name by then) was at The New York Tribune in 1886; at this time the equipment was still subject to frequent break-downs. The owner of The Tribune, Whitelaw Reid, who was determined to “automate” typesetting, ended up as head of the successful Mergenthaler Corporation which was the first among several contenders to bring a reliable typesetting machine to market. The first book typeset using the Linotype was The Tribune Book of Open-Air Sports (1887). The adoption of the machine was rapid — it solved a long-running problem of bottle-necking in the composing room, and increased capacity while bringing down costs. While an average hand typesetter might be able to set 1,000 ems in a hour, the Linotype standard, as allowed by the union (so obviously not any racing speed), was 18,000 ems for an eight-hour day, 2,250 an hour not allowing for breaks. One early speedster could do almost 18,000 ems in a hour, at which point the union outlawed racing.

Most surviving Linotype machines now rust away in garbage dumps, though of course, just like any old-time technology a few are maintained in working order by enthusiasts.