by John Howells and Marion Dearman
(Discovery Press, copyright 1996)

A Second Revolution: the Linotype

Although the invention of movable type spread quickly from country to country, innovations and improvements in technology were slow in coming. For the next four centuries, the state of the art in typesetting basically consisted of hand-picking each individual letter from a wooden “case” and placing it in a “stick” until a line of type was complete and then “justified” (spaced out to an even length). After the “job” was “set” it was placed on a “stone,” “locked” into a “chase” with “quoins”, leveled with a planer-block and mallet, and finally turned over to a pressman.

Typesetting production was limited to the speed a printer could assemble type by hand. A few exceptionally proficient workers, known as “swifts” were proud of their speed; but there was a definite limit to their dexterity. Presses changed little over the centuries, as well. Until the middle 1800s, most newspaper presses were still hand powered, using a screw-and-lever technology developed in the Dark Ages for pressing wine, and later for making paper. Some foot-powered printing presses, mostly used for small commercial or “job” work, sped up production, but newspaper presses were exceedingly slow until the introduction of steam-powered cylinder presses, beginning in the early 19th century.

By the late 1800s, several inventors were struggling with the concept of mechanical typesetters. Since presswork efficiency had improved dramatically, an advancement in composition techniques was sorely needed. Among others, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) invested heavily in a keyboard-operated typesetting machine. Suddenly, in 1886, a tremendous breakthrough occurred when Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant installed his invention—the Linotype—at the New York Tribune. His Linotype took the country by storm. 

By 1890, newspapers and book publishing plants all over the country had purchased this miracle machine. Within a few years, virtually all major newspapers replaced handset type with Linotypes, the first successful attempt at automation in the printing industry. Boosted by even faster, more efficient presses, printing production increased fantastically.(See Carl Schlesinger’s book, The Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler.)

At first printers felt extreme dismay toward new innovation; it looked like the end of an era. One Linotype operator could produce almost as much type in a day as a good hand compositor could in a week. At Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, 28 operators cranked out the equivalent production of 100 hand compositors. To add to workers’ worries, many publishers were reluctant to retrain printers on the new machines. They preferred to go “outside” the trade, assuming that neophytes might not develop the independence and intransigence of traditional printers. Women were considered ideal trainees, because they worked for lower wages and were considered more easily manipulated than men.

This didn’t prove to be the case, because the newcomers quickly assimilated the traditional behavior of the print shop, becoming just as inflexible and bull-headed as the old-time hand compositors. Women clamored to join the union, and the ITU insisted on equal pay for women. (Not so much  because printers were concerned about equal rights, but because they feared unfair competition from low-paid women.) 

It turned out that experienced hand compositors learned to operate Linotypes more quickly than people without printing backgrounds. They transferred their skills and expertise to the new process and became “swifts” on the new machines. In addition, the International Typographical Union insisted on total jurisdiction over the new process; it prohibited its members from working in plants where non-union Linotype operators or machinists were employed. After several bitter strikes, most publishers decided it was easier to work with the union than to fight it. The ITU’s membership grew and prospered far beyond its earlier years.

The printing industry flourished. Daily newspapers replaced weekly newspapers, and new publications popped up all over the country. A flood of books rolled off the presses in astounding numbers. Country weeklies changed from four-page editions to eight or sixteen pages. Ever more workers were needed to cope with the greatly increased volume of work. As printers perfected their skills on the Linotype, they minted fresh jargon that dealt with the new “mills.”

Mergenthaler’s invention was an engineering marvel. Very complicated, with as many as 5,000 moving parts, the Linotype was also reliable and easy to maintain, since components were interchangeable—a relatively new idea at that time. In fact, it was so well-designed that when the Linotype went out of production nearly a century later, the design was virtually unchanged. Ottmar Mergenthaler would have easily recognized the latest model, and would have little trouble repairing it. The brass matrices which cast the lines of type, the spacebands which spaced between words and the cams which operated the marvel were essentially the same as those used on early versions of the machine.

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