Edward Aveling Time, April 1890

A Revolution In Printing

Source: Time, April 1890, p.412-418;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.

Machinery always frightens me. If I go into a large factory or into an exhibition, where myriads of wheels and bands and levers are busy, I am awe-stricken. It is so human and so non-human. There is all the bustle and striving of human labour, but the results yielded are in some ways infinitely greater and more astounding. The life that results from this combination of inanimate masses and inanimate forces is to me terrible.

I have recently encountered my terror in a new form, and as excess of any emotion begets the converse emotion, as intense pleasure becomes pain and there is a strange and subtle sense of delight in the extremity of agony, so I am in love with my terror of a machine.

It is a new printing machine, and they call it the Linotype. I know nothing, and want to know nothing, about companies or promoters, estimates of revenue and future dividends, possible incomes and royalties. These are, I take it, necessary evils in the evolution and development of any new discovery under our present capitalistic system. But with them I am not concerned.

I wish I could say I knew nothing about the displacement of labour absolutely inevitable upon the introduction of any great new discovery in machinery. That is, I should be glad if this displacement were not inevitable. But, as Marx has shown in his “Capital” (vol. II. English translation, pp.391-400, and again 427-436), there has been, there is, and there must be, a constant strife between workmen and machine. “The contest between the capitalist and the wage-labourer dates back to the very origin of capital. It raged on throughout the whole manufacturing period. But only since the introduction of machinery have the workmen fought against the instrument of labour itself,” i.e., against the machine. And, unfortunately, we cannot accept as accurate the comfortable doctrine of the Mills, Torrenses, and Seniors that all machinery in displacing workmen sets free capital which will serve to employ the very workmen thus set free.

Of course, this fact has to be faced and, sooner or later, will have to be dealt with, for the Linotype does the work of six men. But the place and time are not just here and now. That with which we are concerned is a new discovery that threatens ultimately, despite all capitalists, companies and displacements of labour, to revolutionise the most revolutionary of arts, that of printing.

In the year 1450, and in the city of Mainz, Gutenberg and Faust made the immortal discovery of movable type to be used in printing in place of fixed type. With that discovery Revolution No. 1, as far as concerns revolutions of the first rank in printing, was effected. With the discovery of the Linotype machine, Revolution No. 2 is, perhaps, impending.

The discoverer is, again, a German; Ottomar Mergenthaler of Wurtemburg. But although Germany claims the new machine by descent, America is the actual land of its invention, Clephane of Washington its inspirer. Mergenthaler went to America in 1872, and in the eight years from 1876 to 1884, after many experiments and failures, and after, at least, three different kinds of machines had been thought out, he got at the machine in its present form. For the first time the movable types of Gutenburg and Caxton are replaced in their turn, as they replaced their fixed predecessors.

The principle of the machine, as far as the part played by the operator is concerned, is that of the ordinary type-writer. All he has to do is to tap a number of keys like those of a typewriting machine, spell, space, and stop out the manuscript in front of him, and when the end of his printed line is reached touch a lever handle. That is all. If he spells on the keys of his instrument accurately, touches at the end of each word the key that means not a letter, but a space between two consecutive words, and is careful, where stops come, to touch not letter keys or a space key, but those that mean commas, or full-stops, or colons, or dashes and so forth, line after line of type, metal blocks cut into letters, words and sentences are shelled out, as it were from this thaumaturge of a machine and can at once be imposed and printed from.

The most ordinary person who can read and spell can learn in a few minutes how to work the Linotype. Although, of course, to work it rapidly and well needs intelligence and practice.

But let us place ourselves in the position of the intelligent worker who is not content with merely spelling out words on keys like those of a pianoforte, but wants to know the result of his playing, the connecting stages between it and the final result – in a word, how it’s done. To that end, let us, literally, put ourselves in his place in front of the Linotype machine. To begin with, ‘tis a sitting-place, and, by so much, better than a standing one. Immediately in front of the compositor is his keyboard of 126 keys in 4 rows – capitals, small letters, stops, notes of astonishment and interrogation, signs, numbers, and so forth. Just above the keyboard are many vertical tubes or magazines, in which the “letters” are placed.

These magazines look something like a series of organ-pipes. And, like organ-pipes, they are not all of the same length. They are longest to the printer’s left, and gradually shorten from left to right. In each of these 126 vertical tubes is a collection of loose “letters” ranged one upon the top of the other. The “letters” in a given tube are all of one kind, all A’s e.g., or all e’s. One or two frequently recurrent letters have two such tubes told off for them. E, the most recurrent of all, as Edgar Allan Poe remembered in his Gold Beetle cryptogram story, has not only the longest tube, the one most to the left, but also tube No. 33, reckoning from the left, allotted to it.

The open lower end of each tube is closed below by a “hammer” connected with one of the keys. I use the word “hammer,” as then anyone who has seen the interior of a piano will understand the relation between this loose stopper of the magazine tube and the corresponding key on the keyboard. In a piano, the depression of one of the keys causes the rise of a hammer against the wires whose vibration gives a special note.

In the Linotype, the depression of one of the keys causes the fall of the hammer, the opening of the lower end of the corresponding tube, and the falling out of one of the corresponding contained “letters.”

But this “letter” does not fall into empty space. There is a sort of trough running from right to left, and sloping downwards from right to left, just under the lower ends of the series of magazines. As the “hammers” form the floor of this trough or channel, it is, even at its lower left-hand end, well above the keyboard. The “letter,” then, when liberated from its tube falls into this trough.

But not freely. The fact is that, what I have thus far-called a “letter” is really more than that. It is a largish flat piece of brass called a matrix. It is flattened from left to right, and has the letter to be printed from on its narrow back face, i.e., on the face turned away from the operator. On the narrow front face, opposite him, a corresponding letter is printed, for his guidance a little later.

This matrix, flattened from side to side, falls vertically into the trough, and is there caught upon two parallel wires running the length of the trough, and driven by an air-blast, constantly puffing into the right-hand upper end of the trough, down and along this from right to left.

A touch of a key; the depression of a “hammer”; the opening of a magazine-tube; the liberation of a matrix, bearing the impression on its inner narrow edge of a particular letter; the catching of this matrix by the two wires running the length of the trough; the blowing of the matrix down the trough to its left, lower end. And all this repeated until, we will say, some particular word is spelt out.

One of the keys corresponds not with a letter, but with a space. That is, it liberates from a special case to the left of the organ-pipe tubes or magazines a long, thin, wedge-shaped strip, the “space band.” This takes its place after the last letter of the word in the succession of brass matrices and “space bands.” The successive matrices with their intervening “space bands” are thrust out to the left on to a horizontal metal slide. The operator has in full view the faces of the matrices turned towards him. As upon these narrow front faces we have seen that duplicate letters are printed he can thus read off then and there the words or sentences that are thus far set up, and at once correct, by the removal, or alteration, or insertion of particular letters, any blunder that may have been made. As soon as a line of type is complete on the horizontal slide, the compositor touches a lever handle to his left, and as far as that line is concerned, his work is over. He can at once start typing on the key-board the succeeding line. The machine does automatically everything else.

Let us see what that everything is. The moving of the lever sets the machine in action. First, a horizontal metal plate rises below the set-up line and pushes all the space-bands up between the word-matrices to exactly the same level. Thus the spacing between the words is made uniform. Second, a pair of clamps, like a huge thumb and finger, seize the line, lift it from the horizontal slide, on which it rested, and press it against the face of a vertical circular disc of metal, still more to the left. In this vertical disc is a horizontal opening of exactly the same length as the line, into which the line fits. On the opposite side of the disc to the line are a pot full of type metal kept by a gas furnace in a molten condition, and an automatic force pump. At the precise instant when the line of matrices fits into the horizontal slit in the vertical metal disc, the pump forces a jet of molten metal through the slit and on to the letters borne by the matrices. Thus a metal block is formed of the size and shape of the ordinary line of type, bearing on its face in relief the letters corresponding to the line of matrices. The vertical metal disc automatically makes half a turn to the left and so brings to bear on the metal block a pair of knives that trim it to the proper shape. The next moment, the block is thrust out into a vertical galley, evident on the front of the machine to the left. This process repeated gradually fills the galley from below upwards with successive lines of type. When the galley is full it is removed, and can be at once printed from. Now, what is to become of the matrices that have just been used? Are they henceforth useless? By no means. Will they have to be sorted into their respective magazine tubes by hand? Equally by no means. All this is done by the machine. This lifts the line of matrices and “space bands” just done with bodily away from the disc, and right up to the top of the machine, which, by the way, is about five feet high, and about five feet long. At the top of the machine are a series of what look like little, very open railway carriages. These are arranged in a horizontal loop, and the lower part of the loop runs over the open upper ends of the magazine tubes. Each railway carriage as it descends from the upper part of the loop to the lower picks up an instalment of matrices. The “space bands” have been dropped into their case as the line is carried from the moulding disc to the top of the machine.

The matrices whose letters made up the words of the line whose history we are studying, are thus carried along in the little metallic railway carriages, which have no floor, over the open tops of the 126 magazine tubes. Running horizontally through the railway carriages in the lower part of the loop is a fixed metal bar, whose surface is cut into a series of very fine ridges, the arrangement of which differs immediately over every one of the 126 tubes. One may compare this arrangement roughly with the diverse grouping of the metallic spikes of the cylinder of a musical box. The upper part of every matrix is cut into a rough V shape, and the inner edges of the two legs of the V are notched. There are 126 different arrangements of these notches, one arrangement corresponding, of course, with each letter, stop or sign, and therefore with one of the magazine tubes. The upper V-like portion of each matrix is pressed against the stationary horizontal bar with its 126 different arrangements of ridges. When the particular matrix is vertically over its particular tube it has reached that part of the stationary bar where the notches of the matrix find no corresponding ridges. There is nothing to support the matrix and it falls into its tube.

If by any accident a matrix drops from the stationary bar before its tube is reached, in doing this it closes the electric current of a battery placed behind the machine, and the electric current thus established at once by a simple mechanism stops the whole machine.

The obvious advantages of this new device are (1) that every line is printed from absolutely new type then and there made especially for it. (2) That it is impossible to have a turned letter. (3) That what compositors call dirty distribution is impossible. In the sorting of type by hand after it has been distributed – i.e., when the pages, lines and words have been broken up into separate letters – blunders are constantly made and are the most fruitful cause of printers’ errors. The small type-letters are very liable to be thrown into the wrong part of the case; and as printers know the particular letter they want by its place in the case, and have not time to look at it before they set it; as, further, they cannot, as in the Linotype, see the actual line grow letter for letter in the normal vertical position under their eyes, blunders follow. It is clear that dirty distribution cannot occur with this new machine. (4) Pieing is impossible. Pieing, is the printers’ name for the accidental breaking up of what has been set into a hopeless confusion of inchoate individual letters. The solid bar of type produced by the new invention cannot be pied.

I have said that with the commercial aspects of this machine I have nothing to do, and that with its serious economic aspects there is no intention of dealing here. The invention has been made; is already at work; will, I believe, have to be faced, probably in the immediate future; is of a very remarkable nature, and seems likely ultimately to revolutionize printing methods. And that is why I have described it here.