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Linotype: The Film

by Douglas Wilson, Director and Producer
Onpaperwings Productions, Springfield, MO, 2012
DVD, 1 hour 17 mins.  Sales, $N/A
Distributor’s website:  http://www.linotypefilm.com.

Reviewed by Roy R. Behrens, Professor of Art and Distinguished Scholar
University of Northern Iowa, USA


I have had “printing” in my blood since I was ten or eleven. One summer at about that age, having read The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, I sped downtown on my 20-inch Hiawatha bicycle, strolled into the local “job printing” firm, and inquired of the aging (and greatly amused) owner if he might be willing to take me on as a “printer’s devil.” Kindly, he responded “no” (I was far too young), but he did talk to me for a while and gave me a tour of the “tools of the trade.” This was about 55 years ago, yet, even now, I still remember the moment that day when I saw a linotype-typecasting machine for the first time.

I myself don’t know a way to describe how it feels to stand next to a functioning linotype (much less to actually operate one, which can be hazardous at times because of the hot molten metal it spurts). In general, one could simply say that it is a huge complex mechanism for casting metal type that was invented in 1884 by Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899), a U.S. German immigrant. Amazingly, it revolutionized printing to such an extent that its inventor is sometimes said to have been “the second Gutenberg.” But that is at best an inadequate way to convey the feeling of standing in the presence of this clackety, stinky, hot, intimidating, almost room-sized monster that casts lines of hot lead type—one line at a time, hence its quaint historic name “line-o’-type.”

This documentary about the history and significance of the linotype machine is absolutely delightful. It is an engaging, informative and colorful look at an ingenious Victorian-era technological dinosaur. In a loving and frequently humorous way, it guides us through the chronology of Mergenthaler’s miraculous achievement and shows us the extent to which, beginning in the 1880s and continuing as late as the 1970s, his Rube-Goldberg-like contraption was the primary means of casting metal text type for use on printing presses. Its economic and social consequences were largely contributive: While thousands of hand typesetters were most likely out of work initially, its adoption eventually led to a massive increase in the amount of printing (more books, newspapers and magazines, with greater page numbers), which in turn resulted in increased jobs for machine typesetters (far more than had been available for manual typesetting).

For nearly a century, linotype machines were ubiquitous—really ubiquitous, throughout the world. When I was a student in Iowa in the late 1960s, working on the college newspaper, we set the headline type by hand (using a composing stick), while the text type was set on a linotype machine (by a veteran linotype operator, not by young, inexperienced us). But even then, it was increasingly being phased out, and soon was all but replaced by phototypesetting and transfer type (and lots of other goofy stuff), which were themselves in time displaced by digital typesetting. As I look back on all that, it’s as if I am watching a film trailer of the full length of my life, since I’ve witnessed all the stages of typesetting since Mergenthaler’s innovation (and to think, some of my current students have never even used a typewriter, much less been in the same room with a linotype).

One of the things that enlivens this film is its plentiful use of brief film clips from interviews with a rich range of people, among them linotype operators (“old-timers”) and machinists (one of whom travels from state to state, like a country doctor, addressing the aches of the ailing machines), typographers, printers, publishers, historians and museum personnel. In those excerpts, we learn that, in linotype’s heyday, the U.S. Printing Office had 150 machines in operation in a single building, then later, in an auction, that a museum recently purchased two machines for only $20 ($10 each).

Near the end of this film, it gently promotes an agenda. It turns out that there is a resurgence of interest among a small group of people (apparently mostly “old-timers”) to rescue this archaic technology from extinction. To my surprise, there is even a Linotype University (so-called) in Denmark, Iowa, just two hours from my home. As strong as my nostalgia for the linotype, I won’t be enrolling there. Time marches on, and the love that I have for computers today is as great or greater than that of the ink that is still in my veins.

Last Updated 1 December 2012

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