One of the printing technologies Prelogram uses to emboss Moleskine notebooks and print greetings cards – Linotype or mechanical typesetting – was a truly revolutionary development in the history of print and publishing. Here’s some more information about Linotype and why the Prelogram print team still uses it.
When the Lindisfarne Gospels were made 1,300 years ago, they were inked by hand on vellum over many years and available to only a handful of people. This blog post is tapped out on a laptop in an afternoon and made available to 2.7 billion people at the click of a mouse. It’s truly remarkable that human ingenuity has reduced the cost of distributing information to near zero. Although the Linotype machine was a milestone on the road from Lindisfarne, Prelogram is one of the very few using hot-metal commercially in the UK.
Setting type by hand
Johannes Gutenberg developed movable type in Europe around 1450. Before Gutenberg, most printing was done with hand carved wooden blocks – usually a block for each page – making printing a highly skilled and extremely slow process.
Gutenberg carved a mould or matrix in metal for each letter of the alphabet. A molten mix of lead, tin and antimony was poured into the mould to create identical pieces of metal type with raised reverse images of the characters needed to print – like the ends of the type bars on a typewriter. These loose letters of metal type were stored in trays called cases. Compositors selected letters one-by-one and assembled them to make a piece of text. The letters were inked and printed from as many times as required before being dismantled and hand-sorted back to the case.
Gutenberg’s system revolutionised both printing and society: printed material could now be created and distributed quickly. Movable type allowed the widespread dissemination of scientific discoveries, and political and religious ideas: it fired the Enlightenment and the transformation of Europe. Hand-setting of type prevailed for almost 450 years: it was being done at the end of the 19th century in the same way as the middle of the 15th century.
The Linotype machine
The Linotype machine – which automated the setting of type – was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler. His machine was patented in 1884 in the United States and in 20 years had completely transformed typesetting.
A Linotype machine has a keyboard similar to a typewriter. As the keys are pressed, brass matrices or moulds are released from a magazine and arranged in a line. When a line of characters is complete it is transported to a casting section where molten metal – almost the same mix of lead, tin and antimony used by Gutenberg – is used to cast an entire line of type known as a slug. The lines of type – which give the machine its name – are deposited in a tray ready to be made up for printing. After a line is cast, an ingenious system of notches on the brass matrices is used to return them to the right place in the magazine ready to be used again on the next line.
Mergenthaler’s machine was six times quicker than setting type by hand and reduced the cost of typesetting by 70%. The machines were first introduced in the newspaper industry where large quantities of type needed to be set quickly. The New York Tribune introduced Linotype machines 1886 and they were first used in Britain at the Newcastle Chronicle in 1889. By 1895 every newspaper in Fleet Street was using Linotypes. Their introduction led to a huge increase in the quantity and currency of news produced.
Linotype ushered in the first mass media – by 1914 the British were buying an incredible 600 newspapers each day per 1,000 people. Mechanical typesetting hugely increased the availability of reading material and increased levels of literacy fed back in demand for yet more printed material. Linotype machines gradually filtered down to the jobbing printers – the local firms who printed the material required by a modern industrial economy: posters, tickets, catalogues, manuals, etc.
Mechanical typesetting gave rise to an identifiable social history and tradition. Retiring printers were ‘banged out’ to the percussion of their colleagues striking metal objects on their metal bench top (the ‘stone’) creating a terrible din which could be heard in the streets. There was also the enigmatic ‘ETAOIN SHRDLU’ whose name sometimes appeared in type. When an operator made an error, wanted to communicate information about page composition, or simply test the machine he’d complete the line by running his finger down the first two columns of keys on the machine to produce the characters ‘ETAOIN SHRDLU’. The compositor making up the page knew to discard a line featuring ‘ETAOIN SHRDLU’, but sometimes the line made it into print.
The end for Linotype and mechanical composition came quickly in the 15 years after 1975. Photo-typesetting or ‘cold composition’ meant text could be projected onto film and the film used for printing. Newspaper pages started to be made up using a scalpel and sellotape rather than lumps of metal. The Times abandoned hot-metal in the move to Wapping in 1986 and the rest of the Fleet Street press had followed within a few years: the process that Gutenberg would have recognised was gone.
There were soon huge numbers of obsolete mechanical typesetting machines whose only value was as scrap metal. Composition had often been located on the top floor of buildings because of the natural light. When the end came, machines were pushed out of the upper floor of buildings to their destruction and the broken carcasses picked over for scrap.
So why does Prelogram still use these typesetting beasts? The short answer is that they produce work which is impossible to produce using modern techniques and the typography – characters on paper – is qualitatively better than digital print.
The embossed Moleskines could not be produced using modern print methods. Only a hefty chunk of type metal is hard enough to emboss the covers of notebooks and diaries, and Linotype machines are the only things which can produce this type metal. And for the cards and prints, the quality of the impression made by the type metal is deeper, more defined and more beautiful than anything which can be produced digitally. The Linotypes allow Prelogram’s skilled printers to create amazing print products. It’s uniquely beautifully analogue typography in a sea of modern digital print.