The Linotype’s Bleak Future

Ottmar Mergenthaler patented the linotype machine in 1894 with the intention of speeding up the printing process by removing the need to manually set each letter. Before the machine was widely adopted, people had to set each letter, space, or other character in a composing stick like we did to create our letterpress pages. This process is incredibly time consuming, which is why the linotype represented a significant revision of the printing process. The machine has a keyboard that a linotype operator can use to type out lines to be cast into “slugs” and grouped together for printing. Typing is much faster than hand selecting each letter and the machine revolutionized the printing world in the 1900s.

Unfortunately, the linotype has been replaced and no longer has a significant space in the world of printing. The computer is much more efficient, easier to use, and faster. The digitization of printing newspapers, books, and other long documents means the linotype no longer has a mass commercial use. Also, the trend toward electronic reading of both news articles and books means that the world of mass printing is in decline. The linotype is too hard to operate relative to newer technology and is used in a type of printing that has almost been completely replaced by digital innovations.

Linotype machines have a space in museums and universities as a portal into the past, but sadly have no practical use in commercialized mass printing. Like letterpress, it’s possible the linotype could be used in a boutique printing setting, but hand-setting type requires much less skill and lower startup costs so manual setting will most likely remain the most popular method of setting lines of type.

Ray Loomis doing something to the linotype

Ray Loomis doing something to the linotype

The Future of the Linotype

Does linotype have a future? Should it? If not, why not? If so, how and why?

The 1880’s marked a revolutionary transformation in the efficiency and technique of the printing industry German émigré Ottmar Mergenthaler introduced the linotype machine. In contrast to the laborious and precise process of hand-setting typeface, the linotype machine included a 90-key keyboard that allowed typists to transfer the desired text to a sheet at a far more rapid pace. Mergenthaler’s project was lauded around the world, earning the “Grand Prix” at the 1889 World Expo in Paris, France.


A 1936 Mergenthaler Linotype Machine in the Baltimore Musuem of Industry

By 1904, there were 10,000 machines in use on a global scale and this pattern of usage continued into the mid-to-late twentieth century, as newspapers like the New York Times and the San Francisco Chronicle employed legions of linotypists. With the advent of computers, however, the task of operating the linotype machine grew obsolete and antiquated by comparison. Though the skills and expertise that separate a traditional printer from the average modern-day computer user is remarkable, I believe that it is much more appealing in the context of our society to “put the power of the press in the hands of the people.” Watching Ray Loomis explain and operate the nearly 80 year-old machine truly emphasized the nuance and dedication required. In essence, there is nothing a linotype can accomplish that a computer can’t, with significantly reduced time and a limited skill set.


Ray Loomis demonstrating how to operate the linotype machine, no easy feat!

What’s more, the digitization of news media, in conjunction with the rise of individual technological ownership, has left many print newspapers with declining reader bases. The chart below demonstrates how digital new sites are quickly catching up to print newspapers as primary sources of information. Thus, I don’t think a revival of the linotype would even be feasible as more and more people turn to their laptops and tablets to catch up on current events and popular culture, finding articles for free and in a matter of seconds.

The "battle" between modern and traditional news sources in the United States, through the lens of prominent newspaper corporations.

The “battle” between modern and traditional news sources in the United States, through the lens of prominent newspaper corporations.


The Non-existent future of the Linotype

Unfortunately for those who love it, the linotype, a machine that once changed the world, is not outdated and has no future. Sorry to be so blunt, but there is simply nothing a linotype can do that a computer cannot. On a computer, you can “back-space” to fix errors. On a linotype, you must re-do the entire line if an error is made. Linotypes also require “experts” to use them, to be familiar with the keys and the knacks of the machine. Computers are much more, let’s say, “user-friendly”

Solid proof that the linotype has no future would be that in “Linotype: The Movie” that we witness the machines get destroyed as they are no longer needed. The machines have been reduced to being displays in museums and Universities, but not for practical use. Now this is different than a letter press, which actually creates a unique imprint attractive for wedding invitations and posters, for a linotype is an extremely specific piece of machinery that utilizes “line casting” making it’s main purpose to publish newspapers. Not to be super sad, but newspapers are now being printed less and less, as more people have begun to read them online. This further guarantees that sadly for our friend the linotype, that there lies no future.

(Right) Luckily, the printing press still comes into good use to make gorgeous posters like these!

(Left) The linotype at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.


The Printing Press and the Information Revolution

The advent of the printing press in the 15th century sparked an “information revolution” by vastly increasing the availability of text-based material and unlocking a trove of information that had previously been limited to the elite. Prior to the creation of the printing press, books and other documents were written entirely by hand, which made producing multiple copies of an item laborious, relatively inaccurate, and extremely expensive. Books were exclusive to the wealthy, literate population, while most of Europe was illiterate due to the rarity of text-based works.

Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press allowed printers to create many copies of books at a revolutionary rate, which decreased the cost of printed material and made books affordable to a much greater portion of the population. Along with faster printing speeds, the press printed with much greater accuracy due to the elimination of human variation that commonly occurred when different scribes handwrote the same books. Literacy rates increased as the presses spread throughout European cities and books became cheaper. People were exposed to a whole new world of educational, religious, and entertaining information and books were written on many new topics. Therefore, the press played a vital role in the academic explosion of the Renaissance because academic material was made available to a greater amount of people and innovations spread faster. Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press also permanently altered the religious environment of the period. Many religious texts were distributed and with more literate people, the longstanding interpretations held by the church were finally challenged.

Ultimately, Gutenberg’s seemingly innocent invention led to religious revolutions and aided in the intellectual advancement of Europe. Although more efficient printing machines have replaced the printing press, the press remains one of the most important inventions in human history.

Setting the type

Hand setting lines of type


Vandercook press

The Printing Revolution

Before the printing press was invented, information was not accessible to the common people in the form of books. Scribes had to work very hard and long to copy parts of a book, making books extremely expensive. In addition, there was no way of really knowing how exactly a text was copied. The printing press gave us the ability to distribute books and newspapers to people, by letting people create letterpress templates and then distribute multiple copies.

For instance, there was now the ability for books such as the bible to be printed in languages besides Latin, which was  a language few people spoke or read. People from countries such as Germany or France could read these texts in their vernacular, and actually form opinions that were not given to them by higher powers, such as priests or royalty. People were also able to form their own opinions about local events and world events alike.

Here is a photo of a moveable type, where a worker composes and locks movable type into the bed of a press, inks it, and presses paper against it to create an impression on the paper. This allowed us to make hundreds of copies of different templates.



And this is a photo of what happens to one’s hand when using the letter press!



While not as easy as printers, I think we can all agree that the letter press beats scribing!

Conceptualizing the “Information Revolution”

When I try to imagine the mass production of thick novels sans the efficiency of the printing press, I struggle to fathom the extreme amount of time and effort that would be involved. With modern printing technology as something we have simply come to take for granted, it is important to step back and to take time to appreciate the kin of societal shifts that were catalyzed by Guttenberg’s invention.

Literacy is another highly useful tool that, in the context of our education system, is accessible to all ages, races and classes. However, this parity is a far cry from the societal and education climate of 15th century Europe, where there existed a “monopoly of the literate elite on education.” With the advent of the printing press, however, came large-scale distribution of information, allowing anyone to cheaply and quickly access previously rarefied ideas and learning material. What’s more, the printing press helped to replace traditional scholarship and learning processes with the “silent instructor” of educational texts.

Printing Press 2

The number of books printed in Europe experienced a major upward trend following the introduction of the printing press in the 15th century (at which the number of copies printed was miniscule).


Printing Press 1

An authentic illustration of a bustling print studio soon after the introduction of Guttenberg’s groundbreaking invention.

Aside from breaking down socio-economic boundaries, the printing press fostered growing nationalistic tides in Europe. Widespread information led to greater intracultural communication and thus greater “cultural self-awareness”. In addition, according to scholar Steven Kemper:

“Nations had to be ‘imagined communities’. Their size and complexity made the possibility of citizens knowing one another in a face-to-face way quite ridiculous. The spread of print technology made it possible for enormous numbers of people to know of one another indirectly, for the printing press become the middleman to the imagination of the community. . . .The very existence and regularity of newspapers caused readers, and thus citizens-in-the-making, to imagine themselves residing in a common time and place, united by a print language with a league of anonymous equals.”

So, in summary, the printing press shaped and altered the way in which people process and absorb information, expanded the audience of this information and created methods of communication that strengthened bonds of national unity.

Printing Press 5



From Handwriting to Letterpress: The “Information Revolution” and the Written Word

Printing, painstaking though it may seem to our modern perceptions, allowed for massive changes in the dissemination of information. Gutenberg’s invention enabled the increased flow of information, but printing also allowed for accuracy of information to be assured, as well. Due to its ability to be reproduced in such massive amounts, the appearance of printed word is key. Through the selection of fonts, papers, and ink colors, the character of a written tract is determined.

An interesting point in the evolution of the printed word was its ability to transform the many vagaries of handwriting into uniform, standardized fonts and letters. The artistry required to generate these fonts must have been massive. In our class project, my assigned font was Bembo in 12 point. In research for this blog post, I was amazed at the information available on this single font: its history traces back to 1495 and is named after Pietro Bembo, a famed 16th century Venetian poet and literary theorist.

Through working hands-on with this type, and the intricate processes associated with letterpress printing, I was amazed at the sheer amount of labor it takes to produce the smallest piece of text. It took several hours of setting type, placing it into position, printing, adjusting, and printing again, to produce any kind of final product. When comparing this form, however, to antiquated styles of handwriting and calligraphy, however, one understands how printing is such a revolutionary form of information exchange. It is a very front-heavy form of text creation: once the groundwork has been set, hundreds of copies of a text can be generated with relative ease. I learned this when creating my own text; despite the many hours it took to create the correct alignment of type, the prints themselves were printed in less than half an hour. Compared to hand-copying each line of text, the speed at which written word can be generated with the aid of a press is truly fantastic.

"Bamboo 12 point" lead type, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.

“Bembo 12 point” lead type, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.

Globe Poster-themed information and guidelines on the walls of the printing studio, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.

Globe Poster-themed information and guidelines on the walls of the printing studio, Maryland Institute College of Art. Photograph by Diana Tappert.