Twain Technology


2013-11-12 – The release last month of the Autobiography of Mark Twain, Volume 2: The Complete and Authoritative Edition (Mark Twain Papers), put me in mind of Kit’s an my visit many years ago to the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. There we saw some of Mark Twain’s manuscript pages that were typed! That was where I first became aware of Mark Twain’s love of technology. It all seems quaint to us, but it was cutting edge during his time. Twain was a riverboat pilot at a time when riverboats were brand new. He was one of the first writers to use a typewriter and he had a telephone at a time when he had to string his own wires to be able to call his publisher.

One of the disappointments in Mark Twain’s life was his failure to invent what we would now call a linotype machine. He bankrolled an inventor for many years. The project became more and more complex and never produced a product.

The linotype machine that eventually was invented—by someone else—became ubiquitous in the publishing industry. Mechanical typesetting replaced hand typesetting and ushered in a boom in publishing houses, newspapers, and magazines.

I was fortunate enough, at the beginning of my own career in publishing to work for a company that was still using linotype technology in the 1980s—one of the last of its kind. When I first joined the company, I was taken on a tour of our typesetting facility. Each typesetter sat before a large machine that had an array of levers rather than what we would recognize as a qwerty keyboard. The typesetter rapidly pressed the levers until he came to the end of a line of text. The levers assembled molds that corresponded to the letters in the text and, when the end of the line was reached, molten lead was automatically poured into the molds. When the lead cooled sufficiently, the line of type was unmolded and discharged into a chute. One line of type after another was produced in this way and the lines of type stacked up to form columns of type, which were later assembled into galleys.

We were at the end of the mechanical typesetting era, so our company would pull a proof page from the galleys of type, photograph the proof, and make offset plates from the photograph. Our process was a hybrid of two eras of printing.

After two years with the company, we switched to computer typesetting and the typesetters all were let go. Computers allowed editors to “set type” directly, so there was no job for the old typesetters in the computer world. The old typesetters were extremely accurate in their typesetting. Correcting a line of type was not a simple thing, so they were motivated to get things right the first time.

I have been working with the printed word since high school and I guess my exposure to these ancient technologies makes me a dinosaur.

My first exposure was to learn hand typesetting in my freshman year shop class. I learned to read type backwards and pick the individual pieces of type from the case and assemble them in the stick (backwards of course). We also assembled the lines of type into columns and print them in a Ben Franklin style press. I’m not sure why my high school was teaching us a technology that was obsolete for probably 50 years at the time. But that’s what they taught us.

My school newspapers were much more up to date. We used typesetting machines that were more like sophisticated typewriters. Rather than pulling proofs from metal type, we created the pages directly and pasted them up for the offset camera.

They were all fascinating processes. But the transition to computers was most fascinating of all for all the new possibilities that opened up. And for all the old wisdom that had to be discovered anew by a generation that knew nothing about how books and newspapers were published in the old days . . . when I was just starting out.

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