Operation of linotype once a valuable skill

June 9, 2015

When I turned 16 years old in March 1953, I entered a world that would be my career and lifelong work. You see since I was old enough to work around machinery, I took my first job in the world of journalism at the Garnett Anderson Countian newspaper. I jokingly was called a “printer’s devil,” which meant I was an apprentice learning a vital trade.

The skills I learned are largely gone. The printing business, as I knew it, is as obsolete as the buggy whip or horse-drawn plow. Modern printing is cleaner, faster, better and more efficient, although a computer is no way as colorful or cantankerous as a linotype.

Relatively few have even heard of a linotype let alone seen one in operation. It was invented in the 1870s by a German, Otto Mergenthaler, and was the standard of the industry until the 1970s, when almost all newspapers converted to computer-based typesetting. The linotype utilized a 90-letter keyboard. Actually by punching the keys a brass matrix with a letter was dropped in place and ultimately produced a line of words. The lines of type were created in lead and the brass matrix were returned to the machine dropping into place through a sorting system of grooves.

Operating a linotype was hard, hot and dirty work. A lead galley, or 20 inches of type, was a bit heavy and of course sometimes the machine fouled up, resulting in a “squirt” or spitting of hot lead, which often landed on the operator’s foot.

There is no doubt that linotypes revolutionized the business. When The Chieftain purchased its first linotype in 1914, it resulted in the staff being reduced by five employees. Previously lines of type were set by hand or assembled one letter at a time in a device known as a “type stick.”

Weekly newspapers were printed on handfed presses. That meant bringing pages set in lead to the press in a container called a “chase.” Then the pressman wrestled a ream of paper up on the press and stood there entering every sheet. The press was noisy and had to be periodically filled with ink. It was a very tough and dirty job. In fact, legend has it that the term “printer’s devil” referred to a beginner who worked on ancient presses and was covered in ink.

I will say this, once you learned the skills, you never forgot them. When I bought the Mulvane News 20 years after I left the printing side of the industry, I immediately was setting type and feeding a Babcock press. It was like riding a bicycle or swimming — once you mastered the skill, it was with you forever.

The business was changing, and soon we were using primitive computers to set type. The switch over from the “hot metal” or letterpress to offset made the business much easier. Certainly printing continued to change, and once-modern computers were soon obsolete in a few years. It is interesting to note that linotypes seemed to last forever. The one we owned in Mulvane was more than 40 years old and going strong. I understand this linotype now resides in a museum in Sedgwick County.

When I was learning the craft, a union steward told me that he understood that I wanted to be a writer. However, he told me that if I finished my six-year apprenticeship, I could go anywhere in the country and earn $2 or $3 per hour. I doubt if there is a linotype operator working anywhere in the United States.

Believe me, I know the modern printing methods are much, much better. Sometimes I think that I would like to operate a linotype just once more. I guess I have never lost my love for all facets of the newspaper business.

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