A Better Way to Set Type

Photograph of wooden moveable type.

Movable type
Gutenberg printed his first bible in 1492, and Caxton brought printing to England shortly after. The secret behind the new process was movable type. Small pieces of wood had a reverse letter carved into the end of them and by placing them together you could build up words. Ink and a press meant that you could then turn out hundreds of copies far more quickly than scribes could hand-write them - and the type could be reused again and again. 

Drawing of a compositor - a man composing type prior to printing.

The printing process remained essentially unchanged for centuries. Metal replaced wood for smaller type sizes and presses became more sophisticated but otherwise it has been said that Caxton could have walked into a 20th Century letterpress factory and picked up the basics in a day.

The explosive increase in books fuelled a wider readership and by the late 1700s pamphlets were also common and news sheets began to be printed. As the 1800s progressed printing firms employed hundreds of typesetters, or ‘compositors’ as they were known. Yet despite their number, by 1884 not a single daily newspaper in the world had more than eight pages! Typesetting was a slow process.

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The Lintoype Machine
Then, in 1884, a new machine was invented which caused panic among the compositors. German-born Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the linotype machine which speeded up the process - and caused uproar! Compositors across the world feared that they would lose their jobs and they were very angry.

Photograph of a Linotype machine

Here is a Linotype machine (left). It looks amazing and it is. Click on the image if you’d like to see it full size in Wikipedia (opens in a new window).

To use a Linotype machine, one person sits at a keyboard - which you can see near the bottom of the machine - and types a whole line of text in seconds. 

As the operator typed, this amazing machine assembled brass matrices into a row. When the line was ful, the operated pulled a lever and molten metal flowed into them and produced a complete “line-o’-type”.
The result was called a ‘slug’ and you can see one below.

Photograph of a line of type cast in lead - known as a 'slug'.

At last it was possible to set type efficiently and quickly. Whole pages could be composed in the time it used to take to set a small paragraph.

It revolutionised typesetting and, true enough, it did put the old typesetters out of work . . . but that wasn’t althogether bad. After all, who would really prefer to set type by hand when they could retrain and become a Linotype operator?

Their anxiety was not with the technology but with fears for their future, their incomes and their families.

But it’s the consequences that are the lesson for us all. The linotype machine did not do away with jobs (other than manual compositing). What it did was reduce the cost of typesetting. 

This doesn’t sound particularly ground breaking, but it was. The immediate effect was an explosion in the the number of newspapers being produced - and their size. This is something that people probably foresaw. What they didn’t see coming was the creation of an entire new industry - the magazine industry and the thousands of ew and unheard-of jobs that came with it.

What the Linotype machine did was reduce the cost of typesetting. That was its contribution to history. And by lowering the cost of typesetting a whole new industry and millions of jobs were created.

Just think about it. In a world where print was expensive, the idea of a specialist paper that catered for a minority interest was completely unthinkable. It made no business sense.

But once typesetting was cheap, newspapers, pamphlets, and magazines began to be produced in their millions.

What’s more, many new jobs were created - foreseeable ones like reporters, journalists and columnists for example - but also completely new types of job, like illustrators, designers, publishers and distributors. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs were created once the new technology had rolled out and the dust had settled. All this could not have been imagined by the publishers of early newspapers.

The compositors could not have foreseen their future any more than we can see ours. They saw the technology as a threat to jobs; in reality it created them.


Specialist interest magazines are familiar to us today

Unexpected Consequences
I call this an unexpected consequence and I think it’s crucial to our understanding of how computer technologies are changing our world. The next page will look at this idea in more depth:-

Next: Unexpected Consequences

Aside: There was another unexpected consequence of the linotype machine - the birth of the misprint. Click here to read this amusing story.

© Brian Smith 2015