On July 2, 1978 the New York Times made a significant technological leap when they scuttled the last of 60 manually-operated linotype machines to usher in the era of digital and photographic typesetting. When working at 100% efficiency with an experienced operator the Linotype machines could produce 14 lines per minute cast on the spot from hot lead. That number would increase to 1,000 lines per minute the very next day using an array of computers and digital storage.
Typesetter Carl Schlesinger and filmmaker David Loeb Weiss documented the last day of hot metal typesetting in a film called Farewell — ETAOIN SHRDLU (the obscure title is poignantly explained in the film). This amazing behind-the-scenes view not only captures the laborious effort to create a single page of printed type, but also the the emotions and thoughts of several New York Times employees as they candidly discuss their feelings about transitioning to a new technology. One man decides he’s not ready for the digital age and plans to retire on the spot after 49 years, while others seem to transition smoothly into the new methods of production.
This historically significant documentary was digitized in 2015 and made available online in HD from Linotype: The Film, another documentary about linotype printing that includes portions of Farewell. While I’ve always been somewhat familiar with the history of typesetting and printing, I didn’t fully grasp the absurd mechanical complexity and scale required to print a newspaper before the digital age. Each newspaper page was cast in a 40 lb. block of lead!? A huge number of employees were deaf!? If you’re a graphic design or typography professor, here’s a great way to spend 30 minutes.
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