Linotype Film Premieres on the West Coast

Doug Wilson’s Linotype: the Film premiered in San Francisco Tuesday night to two back-to-back sold out audiences. The subject of the film is the historical impact of the Linotype typecasting machine on its trade, and on society.

Director Doug Wilson (in shirt and tie) talks as film attendees fill the venue.

I was first introduced to Doug Wilson through his writing. In The Eighth Wonder, published in Codex, Issue 1, his story revolves largely around the personal misfortune of Linotype inventor, Ottmar Mergenthaler. While its design and mechanical precision was undoubtedly the work of genius, Mergenthaler’s proneness toward its constant improvement put him at odds with the project’s principal backer, newspaper man Whitelaw Reid. Reid wanted a finalized product that could be sold and shipped. In the film, Reid is resoundingly pronounced a tyrant, ruling ‘with an iron hand.’  The resulting product, despite its complexity, eventually succeeded in mass production, and became the foundation of an enormously profitable business, as well as “the pinnacle of late-Victorian mechanical engineering.”

Diagram detail from The Official Manual, Linotype Machine Principles, 1940.

Most notably, the movie wasn’t some sad story about a few sweet old men left behind as the history of their trade was lost. Though some genuinely sweet old men make up the cast of the documentary, the tone of the film is hopeful. One bit of evidence was the small but much younger group of ‘second generation’ Linotype operators. Another was presented like this: With the use of the Linotype, the work of one man was now equal to that of 6 hand-typesetters. While this initially spelled ruin to the typesetting trade, within a decade of its introduction all these workers and more were called back to the industry, as the many new volumes of books, magazines, and newspapers – now produced and sold at a much more affordable price – needed someone to make them.

After the film, the director answered the audience’s questions, including “How much did a Linotype cost?” and “Is anyone making new matrices for the Linotype?” The answers took a bit of explaining. The first typecasters sold for the equivalent of a house, “between $10- and $50,000.” This expense could be made up in the case of a newspaper, for example, in a couple of years. The ‘matrices’ – mats, in Linotype terminology, underwent 63 machine processes in their production. All of the custom machinery that made the mats was scrapped with the close of the Linotype factory’s hot metal era, thus “even with today’s technology, their reproduction would be completely nonviable, impossible.”

The film was received entirely positively. Its release to DVD happens Summer 2012.

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