Monday, November 10, 2008

The Linotype Machine

Above is a hundred-year-old illustration depicting a Linotype text compositor: an amazing machine that creates entire lines of text, molded in a lead-alloy, compiled as a single block. Type text on a keyboard and then the molds, called 'matrices', drop into the mechanism and are lined up, until the line is finished and the text is molded. The line of text is dropped into the galley to cool, and the matrices are returned to their homes. All of this was done mechanically — some power source had to turn the driveshaft, which was eventually electricity, but it could have been steam-powered or water-powered. The machines were assembled with a watchmaker's precision, and many of them were still running, in use, in newspapers until the 1960s and 1970s and electronic typesetting became cost-effective for an upgrade from a machine that had been paid for many, many years before. Several of these machines are still running today, at the Western Minnesota Steam Thresher's Reunion in Rollag, Minnesota. This is one of them, connected to a tape-reader, which allowed text to be sent electronically over telegraph wires or even by mail:

You can see the tape at the far right, in front of the orange thing in the background. They looped the paper around and taped to itself. On the tape was "WELCOME TO ROLLAG WMSTR", encoded (most likely TTY) in a way the Linotype machine understands, finished off with a line-end (see detail here). The machine ran, unattended, creating text slugs from that tape. When the tape got to the end of the loop, the line feed told the machine to cast the text, and then the loop repeated, starting a brand new line. The 'galley' is at the bottom of the image with dozens of slugs ready to go to the printing press. This is where we get the term 'galley copy' for pre-press review copies sent out by book publishers. It was cheaper and easier to have a Linotype machine quickly typeset a manuscript and print off several hundred copies than to typeset an entire book by hand. As the Linotype operator casted line after line after line, the galley would fill, and when there was enough to print a page of text the galley was taken to the press and the Linotype operator started on the next page with an empty galley.

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