The Linotype Revolution

I would be lying if I said I expected hand-setting lead type to be a challenging experience. When I walked into MICA’s letterpress studios for the first time, I thought the experience would be relaxing and fun. Although the process was a fun break from the usual lecture class, I underestimated the amount of precision and attention to detail required for this process. After selecting the length of the lines and specific type to use, one must hand select the lead slugs and assemble them upside down and backwards onto a composing stick, keeping in mind the type spacing and snugness of slugs.

The lead slugs used for hand lettering divided by character

Maryland Institute of Art. Photographed by Grace Golden.

I can imagine that when Ottmar Mergenthaler introduced the Linotype printing machine in 1884, the printing world was turned on its head. Although the machine can be seen as a more efficient continuation of the hand-setting techniques already in use, in reality the machine revolutionized the printing industry and allowed for the first truly comprehensive and widespread daily publications to arise. Described accurately in Linotype: the Film as Rube Goldberg-like machines, the linotype allows for entire lines of type to be cast together instead of hand-setting lines letter by letter. After trying each of these methods, the difference in time and effort is astounding.

Linotype machine at the Baltimore Museum of Industry

Linotype machine at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Photographed by Grace Golden.

While hand-setting is tedious and requires years of practice to turn into an efficient practice, the linotype involves little more than typing the desired text into a typewriter. Of course, the machine itself can be dangerous, and it takes years to fully perfect the use of the linotype to the point where texts are assembled easily and without errors. Still, when compared to previous alternatives, the linotype is more that an extension— the machine allowed for the quick production and mass printing of daily publications, setting up the news industry as we know it today.

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