Linotype’s Future (etaoin shrdlu)


Linotype operators of The Chicago Defender.
Image from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs (ID: ppmsca.01614)

Once the globally dominating form of letterpress, has the linotype become the ultimate weltberühmte Verliererin? I personally wouldn’t go that far, but it certainly has been removed from its most celebrated role: printing every single word your eyes would see on any piece of paper in any given day. But I think if we take some advice from Bloch and “rid [our] mind of the virus of the present,” we might be able cast the linotype in a new light. It shouldn’t be viewed as an outdated, useless technology, but rather as an underutilized, interesting artifact of print culture.

The linotype was a mechanical, semi-automatic method of printing that was used by newspapers, magazines, and the publishers of almost everything else.  Invented in 1886 by O. Merganthaler, the linotype’s claim-to-fame was the speed at which it could cast type. It became THE replacement technology for hand setting type. I think if we view the linotype as a machine that truly revolutionized the manner in which people read in the late 19th & early 20th centuries, then the linotype absolutely has a future in our cultural landscape.


Image from the class blog

An illustrative example of this possible future can be seen the The Type Museum in London, England. It holds one of the world’s best typographic collections and has definitely made its way onto my museum bucket list. The brainchild of designer and printer Susan Shaw, the museum seeks to provide educational outreach to young students, offer courses to designers, and function as a shrine to heyday of print culture. I think this may be the future of the linotype—a beautiful, intricate piece of technology that helped usher in the 20th century that now can serve as educational tool to future generations.


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