Various Art Forms:

Hot Metal – January 6, 2019

Linotype machine

I’ve been involved with small computers since buying an Apple II in 1979. After I tired of drawing little horses and Christmas trees in colored blocks on the screen with its BASIC program and playing an early form of Star Trek video game, I quickly fitted the machine out with a CP/M card, WordStar word-processing software, and an NEC SpinWriter impact printer, which cost twice as much as the computer itself. Then I could use what was essentially a programmer’s toy to produce professionally typed manuscripts. I’ve been a digital geek ever since.

In the early 1990s we began hearing about a new type of computer programming, Hyper Text Markup Language, or HTML, that allowed one page of text to expand into other pages to display detailed descriptions, photographs and illustrations, and the introduction of other topics. I immediately conceived of this HTML editor as a new way of writing. The basic argument of an article or the story line in a novel would take place on the main page, but the reader could choose—or not—to take these side tracks to gain richer understanding, to have unfamiliar words and concepts explained, or perhaps, in the case of fiction, to explore alternate plot twists and endings. That was only my fertile brain at work, because readers at the time wanted—and still want today—a piece of writing to be linear, going from beginning to end, with the argument or story unfolding according to a single structure as conceived by the narrator-who-is-god.

But while HTML as a new way to write enriched articles and novels never got off the ground, it was a godsend to the budding internet, which was just taking off at about the same time. HTML coding and its more recent variants and implementations (e.g., XHTML, or Extended HTML) became the backbone of web-based structures. By using the embedded links, the web developer can land you on the home page of a website, and from there you can choose to branch to other landing pages or to individual entries. This structure is now so familiar that I hardly need to describe it, but in the early 1990s it was a miracle. Modern applications like Adobe Dreamweaver®, the one I use, let people with only a modest knowledge of coding create fully serviceable websites and pages almost as easily as a good word processor lets them format a printed page.

One of the early HTML-authoring software packages played upon the acronym and called itself HoTMetaL. But, of course, printing with “hot metal” has been around for a century or more. And therein lies my tale.

Right after I graduated from college and moved to California in the early 1970s, I took a job as an editor at Howell-North Books in Berkeley. This was an incredible experience for two reasons. First, the company published railroad histories, Western Americana, and Californiana. As a transplanted Easterner who knew very little about the area, it was a crash course in the history and heritage of this part of the country. Soon I learned as much about the West Coast as any native.1 Second, Howell-North was one of the few publishers in the country who handled every part of book production—editing, typesetting, page proofs, layout, plate making, printing, binding, warehousing, and shipping—under one roof. And they had been in business a long time, so that their equipment represented the prime of mechanical book production. As a young editor, I learned firsthand how the nuts and bolts of publishing worked.

Every manuscript I edited went straight from the front office into the hands of the Linotype® operators. And they brought back galley proofs, pulled from a tray of lead slugs still warm from the machine, for me to read and compare with the manuscript. That was real “hot metal” publishing.

The Linotype is a fabulous machine,2 about as complicated as a pipe organ and featuring a reservoir of molten lead as one of its components. At the top is a magazine holding hundreds of little molds, called “matrices,” for casting individual letters. The machine has a different magazine for each font style and in each type size. The operator works a keyboard that arranges all the letters, both upper and lower case, and punctuation according to their frequency in the English language, rather than the QWERTY pattern of a typewriter. There is no shift key, so that upper-case letters are on a different part of the keyboard from lower case. Each time the operator presses a key, the corresponding matrix drops out of the magazine into a rack in the middle of the machine. Spaces are held separately from the magazine, because they don’t cast any particular typeface or size, and they have the ability to expand sideways to fill out a line of justified type with equal spacing between words.3

The operator reads from the manuscript and types just one line at a time—but it is the line as it will appear in the book, not as it was typed on the manuscript page. So the operator has to mark his4 place as each line is set. Then he spaces out the line, locks it up, and casts it with hot metal from the reservoir. Hot lead solidifies quickly, and the operator can then eject the slug of type into the galley tray and release the matrices to drop by gravity into a holding area. The Linotype machine then—and here was its special genius—sorts the individual letters according to the pattern of teeth cut into the matrix and returns them to the appropriate slot in the magazine, ready to again be called out and drop into place as needed in the next line.

It’s a complicated process. The operator has much to be mindful about: typing the manuscript without losing his place; considering spacing and sometimes letterspacing to achieve a good-looking line; dealing with special type treatments like boldface and italic, as well as any foreign characters and symbols not in the matrix, such as letters with diacritic marks; changing the magazine as required; and working with hot lead without getting burned.

Howell-North was, of course, a union shop under the International Typographers Union. All of our printers and typographers were old and experienced hands, who commanded top wages. Their time was money—of which the company president, Mrs. North, continually reminded me.5 Because of the company’s origins in printing signs and documents for the local shipyards during World War II, the style guide I had to follow was the U.S. Government Printing Office, or GPO. It uses a stripped-down style and rejects the Oxford or serial comma, which is more common with publishers who follow the University of Chicago’s Manual of Style, on which I had previously trained. GPO style suited Mrs. North just fine, because she saw every stray piece of punctuation and fancy type variations like bold or italic print as a dollar sign. And with Linotype, every error I made or let pass in editing, and every change the author made in reading his or her set of proofs, meant the whole line had to be retyped, spaced, and cast. So the watchwords in our shop were simplicity and accuracy.

That was good training in many ways. My four years at Howell-North made me a better editor and gave me insight into the publishing world that I never would have gotten working in a New York office and sending manuscripts to be typeset in Japan or China—or working with computerized typesetting from the beginning and never quite understanding how easy the process is these days.

Hot metal—and little blocks of wood or lead with letter shapes carved in reverse on their faces—go back to the beginnings of the printing industry. And printing, perhaps more than the Reformation and the Enlightenment of the past millennium, shaped the modern world we have inherited from our grandfathers.6

1. I also met my wife of 41 years—and a proud San Francisco native herself—while researching photos for a book project at The Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus. Ah, the amazing choices we make early in life!

2. Read a complete description of how a Linotype machine works.

3. If a line is really sparse, the operator can also to insert letterspaces between the characters of certain words, expanding them to even out the appearance of the text.

4. I’m dispensing with the usual “he or she” here, because all of our typographers were men. They were all older men, too, in their 60s, because even back then hot metal typesetting was a dying artform.

5. As fascinated as I might be with the workings of the machine, I was strongly discouraged from asking questions and pestering the operators.

6. See also Gutenberg and Automation from February 20, 2011.