In 1886, an inventor named Ottmar Mergenthaler was the first to realize the vision of an automated typesetting machine, speeding up exponentially what had been until then a slow, tedious hand process of setting lead type one single character at a time. This machine would nothing less than revolutionize the printing and publishing industry, uncorking a new wave of communication much as the internet revolutionized our generation.
The cutting edge machine that Mergenthaler invented became known as the Linotype (Line o’ type), referring to it’s ability to set metal type an entire line at a time. It was incredibly complex, with many moving parts and took a skilled operator to work it. It immediately became ubiquitous in publishing and print houses, serving tirelessly for more than half a century, and even Thomas Edison would call it the “Eighth Wonder of the World.”
Eventually in the 60s and 70s, photo typesetting overtook the Linotype machine and they were phased out and scrapped by the thousands. Along with the loss of most of the original machines, the operators are dying off, and with them, a skill that cannot be replaced.
Filmmakers Doug Wilson, Brandon Goodwin, and Jess Heugel seek to capture the story of the Linotype, its history and the people who operated them, before they are forever lost to history. In production is a documentary film, Linotype: The Film, currently scheduled to be completed late 2011. Art directors and publishers of a certain age will no doubt appreciate the nostalgic look at the way the graphic design and printing industry used to be, and hopefully, a few more of our generation will learn the craft and keep some of these beautiful machines humming along well into the next century.
My personal connection? I have a few personal effects from my late great grandfather who worked for years as a typesetter in Buffalo. One of them, a handwritten WWI draft card from 1917, just before he shipped off to Europe to join the war, listing occupation: Linotype Operator.