Reports of the death of the mysterious ETAOIN SHRDLU have been much exaggerated: last sighted around 1985, he’s alive and well in West Yorkshire.
ETAOIN SHRDLU is not, of course, a real person. It’s the combination of letters used by Linotype operators to fill up a line of type when a mistake is made or to signify an instruction to the printer. And the reason it’s been seen much more often is because our print team are busier than ever setting type the old-fashioned way for personalised Moleskine and Leuchtturm notebooks.
Indeed, December 2014 has been the busiest month for hot metal typesetting this millennium. It’s a veritable resurgence in analogue typography.
Linotype machines cast type using brass matrices which are released from chutes in a magazine when the operator presses a key. When a matrix is released, it can only be returned to the magazine by going through the complete cycle of casting and distribution. When the operator makes a mistake by pressing the wrong key, the line of type containing the error has to be cast – there’s no delete or backspace key.
Because only full lines of type can be cast the line has to be filled and the easiest way to do this is to run down the keys on the machine. The keys on a Linotype keyboard are arranged by letter frequency rather than the QWERTY arrangement, so running down the keys produces the characters E – T – A – O – I – N etc.
When newspapers were typeset using Linotype, the printers making up the page sometime missed a line containing an error and ETAOIN SHRDLU made it into print. Here are some tennis results from the Guardian in 1983 with ETAOIN SHRDLU.
The Prelogram team set many thousands of lines of type in the run up to Christmas, type used to emboss the covers of Moleskine notebooks and diaries. Inevitably, ETAOIN SHRDLU made an appearance when there was a slip whilst keying a name or message. It’s good to have ETAOIN back: Linotype machines remain one of the wonders of the modern world and the analogue typography they produce is inimitable by digital techniques.
Letters to the Times from 1929 about ETAOIN SHRDLU
The Times newspaper printed a special edition ‘The Story of Printing’ in 1912 to celebrate its 40,000th edition. The edition raised some questions and answers about the mysterious ETAOIN SHRDLU.