Wednesday, June 6, 2012

From Gutenberg’s printing press to the linotype machine …

In Thief’s Coin, the second book of my fantasy trilogy, an inventive chronicler hires a mage to conjure magical copyists to prepare his broadsheet newsletter pages. The chronicler prepared one “template,” and then dozens of disembodied hands holding inked quills would copy the chronicler’s sentences to newsletter pages.

In a way, it was a non-mechanical version of a linotype machine except a printing press wasn’t required for the final step in the process. A Folded broadsheet produced four pages of copy. The disembodied hands could produce hundreds of newsletters and were fast enough that the chronicler could print on a daily basis. Of course, magic doesn’t exist in our world. We rely on machines.

 When people think of a revolution in printing, they think of German Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press. Gutenberg, a goldsmith by profession, based his machine on existing screw presses. When combined with Gutenberg’s newly devised hand mould for movable metal type, it made possible the first mass production of books in assembly-line style. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per workday compared to 40 by typographical hand-printing and a few by hand-copy.

But it still took time to build books by the hand mold. Thankfully, a 300-page page book didn’t need to be prepared for the printing press in a week or less. That wasn’t the case for broadsheets and newspapers.

Before 1884, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages. That’s more than 400 years between Gutenberg’s printing press and German-born Ottmar Mergenthaler’s invention of the linotype machine. The linotype was the first mechanical device that could quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses. Mergenthaler has been called the second Gutenberg for initiating a second revolution in the art of printing.

The linotype is a line-casting machine used in printing. Along with letterpress printing, linotype was the industry standard for newspapers and magazines from the late 1800s to the 1960s and ‘70s when it was replaced by offset lithography printing and computer typesetting.

The linotype gets its name from the fact that it produces an entire line of metal type at once. That’s a revolutionary improvement over what came before it – letter-by-letter typesetting using a composing stick and drawers of letters. I know how laborious this can be; in a journalism class at Ohio University, I had to set type this way.  It was an enlightening history lesson.

So how does a linotype work? The machine operator enters text on a 90-character keyboard. The linotype assembles matrices – molds for the letter forms – in a line. The assembled line is then cast as a single piece of metal – called a slug – in a process known as hot-metal typesetting. The matrices are then returned to the type magazine for reuse.

The machine transformed newspaper publishing, making it possible for a relatively small number of operators to set type for many pages on a daily basis.

I’ve actually seen linotypes in operation. At my first newspaper reporting job in the mid-1970s, linotypes were still in use. Sometimes I’d walk back into the Lancaster Eagle-Gazette’s Composing Department and watch the machines in action.

Today there’s another revolution afoot. One of the nation’s oldest newspapers is joining a growing movement away from seven-days-a-week print publishing. Starting in the fall the New Orleans Times-Picayune will only distribute print editions three days a week. Of course, all seven editions will be available online. That’s the crux of the matter – in tough economic times newspapers are painfully beginning the move toward only online editions.

The digital age also has ushered in a watershed change in the way some books are printed. Print-on-demand or POD books are not printed until an order has been received. It means books can be printed one at a time. Digital printing made POD economical. Before ultraviolet curable inks and large format inkjet printers, it was cost-prohibitive to print small runs using letterpress or offset printing.

POD has fueled the large increase in self-publishing authors who can use a POD publishing or printing company that offers services directly to authors for a fee. These services generally including printing and shipping a book each time one is ordered and getting listings in online bookstores.

As Bob Dylan sang back in the ‘60s, “The times they are a-changin’.”


  1. Merganthaler - a new word in my lexicon. Seriously, I love to learn something new.

  2. Great info with nice details. I really like it. I need a Plastic card printing machine, where i can get the best one?

  3. Seems good that they flourish well in the field of plastic cards printing....hope in future they also do same...