Etaoin Shrdlu is the original backspace, and there was a time when every typesetter knew it. Running their fingers quickly down these 12 left-hand letters on a Linotype machine meant that a mistake had been made, and that a proofreader would later be removing that line of copy. This knowledge is just one of the many wonderful tidbits imparted in a new feature-length documentary called Linotype: The Film. Directed by Doug Wilson, Brandon Goodwin, and Jess Heugel, the movie may be about an obsolete old machine, but it's far from a historical record. The tale is charming, entertaining, and incredibly funny.
What is a Linotype machine? Describing such an item is indeed the challenge put to the creators. It's a complicated and unwieldy marvel, which makes a "line-o-type," as the name implies. Invented in 1886 by Ottmar Mergenthaler, the machine revolutionized the printing industry and had an astounding impact on the world. Before Linotype, the printing process required that words be painstakingly assembled by hand, in reverse, one character at a time. Linotype mechanized all of that, casting in metal entire lines of copy that were typed into a keyboard. Before Linotype, no newspaper in the world had been longer than 8 pages. After, printing was exponentially easier, stories were longer, publications could reproduce faster, and literacy rates abounded. According to newspaper headlines of the day, the amazing Linotype had "moved mankind forward a thousand years in the span of one generation."
In the film, the Linotype story is told not by historians, but by the machine's operators; men who have spent their entire careers tapping out line after line of type. It was a physical and sometimes dangerous job – this monster of a machine was hot, loud, and filled with 288-degree (550° Fahrenheit) molten metal. Operating it required an explicit understanding of the machine's complicated engineering, and intense concentration to function as super-skilled stenographers in a pre-computer age.
It is these men who set the each day's headline news. They were first to read the stories outside of the newsroom, and the last to touch them before the type casts were set. As one man proclaims in the movie, "it takes a special breed of person to be a Lintoypist—to think it's fun, and to be able to keep it operational." Throughout the film, the zealous voices of these operators were teeming with enthusiasm, and their wit and charisma truly stole the show.
So, the movie isn't actually about a piece of machinery. It's about a cast of characters, each one telling their own versions of love stories for such an unusual contraption. Their adoration is palpable. Many of the characters in the movie are in their late 80s, and all of the characters are painfully the last to hold onto an expiring generation of knowledge. There are, of course, a few young enthusiasts, but they've been attracted to the Linotype invention for its obscurity, and will never truly understand it as a lifeblood.
This is the perfect time for a story about the Linotype machine. It employs letterpress printing –raised letters being inked and pressed into paper – a technique which has seen a huge resurgence in popularity in the last decades. Yet even some of the most skilled letterpress craftspeople and typographers today have little knowledge of this majorly impactful thing – what exactly it is. "It's gone to the junkman, now," says one old-timer in the movie. After the last issue of New York Times to be set with hot metal type was produced on July 2nd, 1978, Linotype machines there were pushed out the back door of the building, loaded onto flatbed trucks, and subsequently melted down for scrap metal. From over 100,000 operational machines in the world in the mid-1950s, there are incredibly few that are still working today, fewer men that know how to operate them, and a miniscule number of people that can still do restorations and repairs. As we speedily advance through our iterations of much more modern technology, it's a movie that makes us pause, appreciate, and laugh at how far we've come.
Director Doug Wilson is a type fanatic and even owns a small letterpress machine. But asked if he'd like to own a Linotype, the answer is a resounding "no." "It's such an incredible machine," he says. "But it's also incredibly problematic. There's 90 different things that need to happen just to get the matrices [type form] to go down, and if it doesn't work exactly right, you've got major problems. The machine is its own worst enemy now." The film's directors have developed their own kind of "machine love," which is to admire it from a few steps back. Saundra Marcel (@saundr1a) is a New York City-based designer and writer. She writes about graphic design, architecture, and culture.