Volume 13, Issue 22 ~ June 2 - 8, 2005

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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

From Hot Type to Cold
An old timer remembers when newspapering was real work

Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards.
—Benjamin Franklin.

Sound advice, and old Ben had much good and practical advice to offer. But one can appreciate his sage counsel even more with the knowledge that much of Franklin’s writing was accomplished composing in stick.

Ben was a busy man, prolific in words and wisdom, and oft times practiced what he preached. He also wrote in Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1746: Dost though love life? Then do not squander time for that’s the stuff life is made of.

He might not have found time to fly that kite to check on atmospheric electricity had he not been adept at multiple tasking. For quite a spell he was a printer, and being busy it is said that he composed in stick, which is quite a feat. For you younger buffs of the computer age, that is something akin to me writing this column on my Apple without the screen being turned on.

That would be quite an accomplishment — though some readers of long standing might be of the opinion that is modus operandi with me.

You see, composing in stick means writing by plucking each single letter from a plate of letters with something like a pair of tweezers (sticks) and placing them on a tray, one at a time, side by side. At times, Ben didn’t have time to take quill in hand and write things out first, so he went right from thought to picking letter by letter.

Not an easy task when one considers that type reads backwards, and Ben didn’t have very good eyesight; he invented bifocals, and necessity is the mother of invention. There were no 150-watt bulbs around at the time.

What Brings This Up?
Editor Sandra Martin tells me that proofreader Dick Wilson was amazed at how newspapers can pull all the news, photos and ads together to put out a sheet on deadline in this computer age when it’s all — pictures, ads, news and such — coming in from so many different places and different people. The reader wanted to know how it was done before the computer age.

Presumably I got the assignment not because I was an editor of several publications, but because I’ve been around longer than any other contributor to this sheet; remember Calvin Coolidge was president when I was born.

I retired from The Sun 13 years ago, so I’m not really qualified to go into the flurry of activity involved in putting a paper together via computer whizzes. All I did for The Evening Sun between 1956 and 1993 was write my columns and articles. Since signing on with Bay Weekly a dozen years ago, I have stopped in at the shop not more than a couple dozen times.

Perhaps, owing to my longevity (in life, not at the shop), I might assign Editor Martin to do a piece on how this newspaper comes together each week. She’s a relative newcomer to newspapering. Why, when she started, cold type was coming onto the scene. It was hot type when I started in ’45. Then came cold type; now it’s cold, cold type.

Types of Type
Hot type got its name because that’s what it was. Hot.

Gutenberg invented hot type, with each character molded from lead and composed in sticks, for Europe in the middle of the 15th century. From Gutenberg’s times to Franklin’s into the last century, that’s how books and newspapers got their letters.

By my time, Linotypes were around. Picture a machine about half the width of a stand-up piano with a bunch of gadgets attached as well as a pot of melted lead and a keyboard as its centerpiece. As the Linotype operator with story or ad copy in front of him punched in a letter. It came out on a piece of the hot lead, letter by letter in lines the width of a column.

The lines dropped in sequence on a thin tray. Then, in smaller newspapers, a piece of paper was pressed on the column of type and inked to get a proof. The copy was then read by a proofreader, who made corrections by pencil, then sent them back to the linotypist, who made them one line at a time. Individual letters wouldn’t do, because Linotype means whole lines — line o’ type.

The new lines were inserted in place of the incorrect lines, which were then tossed into the hell box, melted and used again and again. Printing was recycling at its best, for once the publication was printed, all the lines of type were saved to be melted down for the next issue.

Linotypists and Trip-ups
Linotype operators were exceptionally fast and efficient, but they made mistakes. It was a well paying trade, and those who didn’t master it quickly went elsewhere.

The most proficient linotypist I ever saw was Opie Harwood of the Bennington (Vt.) Banner, who doubled as sports editor — and always wrote his copy directly on his Linotype. Remember, he had no screen or paper to guide him, but he was adept enough that he could pick up the type, which was backwards, and read it when curious if he missed something he intended to include. He was as close to Ben Franklin as anyone I ever met in this business.

Once all copy was proofread and corrections made, the columns of type were placed in a frame with bolts to firmly hold it all in place as they went to the press to be printed. A couple of times each year, while full pages of type were slid from one flat table to another or to the press, a whole page would fall apart. Then you’d hear words not fit for any publication.

There on the floor would be thousands of pieces of type Humpty Dumpty style, and all the king’s horses, men and pressmen couldn’t put it back together again. It all had to go to the Linotype, then through proofreading, correction and layout procedure again.

With no computers, type in lead couldn’t be changed in size to make something fit, and to keep type in a frame securely there had to be exactness in numbers of lines. To fill any gaps there were devices called dingbats — one or two liners that expressed some trivia or perhaps a reminder to check the paper for an upcoming feature. Anything to take up space.

If you’re an old-timer and wonder why you don’t see them any more, it’s because with the cold-type process, instant changes can be made in type sizes, so there is no longer much need for filler. That’s why you no longer see a squib on an octopus in China without tentacles, and other such dingbats.

A new day on a paper was akin to a turned-off computer screen: Empty. And that blank space had to be filled by press time, with the Linotype operator the key to switching words from typewriter copy to hot lead to press.

That was what the back shop was like. Meanwhile, in the news and ad departments there were words, photos and illustrations to put together to busy the linotypists. We’ll get into that next week.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.