Printing Newspapers Before Computers

Friday December 14, 2018 Written by Smith

Hot metal typesetting

Before July 2, 1978, if you wanted to print a newspaper, first you had to cast each letter of every word in molten lead, wait for it to cool, and then painstakingly slot it into place. It was a laborious process – the fastest typesetter could complete just 14 lines a minute – but one that had the noble whiff of history about it. (The process had barely changed since Gutenberg invented the first press back in the 15th century.)

And then overnight, everything changed, as The New York Times shut down its 60 manually operated lino typesetting machines, and thus ushered in the era of digital and photographic printing. It was a sad day, no doubt, for the hot metal typesetters who made their living doing things the old fashioned way, many of whom were deaf. (The condition, rarely an asset, apparently made working in the noisy printing rooms more bearable.)

Thankfully, the fateful occasion was captured on 16mm film by typesetter Carl Schlesinger and filmmaker David Loeb Weiss, who produced this short movie, Farewell – ETAOIN SHRDLU. (The title makes sense once you watch it.) The film was finally digitised in 2015, and is now available to stream on the very thing that caused hot metal typesetting’s downfall in the first place.

Farewell - ETAOIN SHRDLU - 1978 from Linotype: The Film on Vimeo.