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From manuscript to Mac

A brief history of printing

Issue: "Campaigning from the closet," Sept. 19, 1998

Forty years ago this month, I headed off for my freshman year of college with an unusual piece of equipment in a U-Haul trailer. It was a Model 8 Linotype machine, almost as big as a Volkswagen beetle and probably a little heavier. Through my high school years, I had saved up $2,000 in cash-enough in 1958 to pay for two years of college. But with my dad's encouragement, I spent the $2,000 instead on the 30-year-old Linotype, with which I expected I could easily earn enough to pay for all four years of college. Even in those pre-inflation days, a Linotype operator could earn $15 an hour. I had learned the keyboard five years earlier, knew how to make minor repairs, and thought I could do even better. It seemed like a sound business plan.

That was before a crucial chain broke as we were lowering the heavy machine down a stairwell. The fragile Linotype lurched sideways, another chain snapped, and my whole investment crashed a dozen feet down the concrete steps. As I stood surveying the ruins, I wanted badly to cry. But I had just turned 17, I thought, and grown men don't cry. Still, I remembered, even grown men know when they've been wiped out. So I cried.

Foolishly, instead of junking the Linotype, I threw good money after bad and tried to repair it. A year later, it was running, though feebly and nonproductively, and I was badly in debt. But I was also wedded inextricably to the process of getting words into print.

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I'm not the first man who has loved the process of printing. Its history is broken into five periods.

The first was the tedious era of hand copying, or of "manuscripts." It provided work for scribes in the B.C. period and monks in the A.D. years. It meant you couldn't be sure every page would be the same as the one before it.

The second era emerged as patient people discovered they could carve, especially into wood, entire pages of letters and illustrations. Then, after inking those blocks and pressing paper down on them with something like a winepress, multiple-and identical-copies could be reproduced fairly quickly. The problem was in carving the block. The work was tedious, everything had to be done in mirror image, and one slip of the carving tool meant the whole block might be ruined.

Era three belonged to Johannes Gutenberg. He had the wisdom to apply the new technology of movable type to the printing of the Bible. Such a massive undertaking was possible because each page now was made up of individual letters of type-each one a miniature block, if you will-all tightly assembled to form the entire page of text. After a page was printed, those individual letters could be broken down and reassembled in a different order to form the next page of type. Still tedious, the process was nevertheless a giant step forward.

In the late 19th century, the German watchmaker Ottmar Mergenthaler observed that there must be a better way. He developed an ingenious contraption that, even more than movable type, revolutionized the task of getting words on paper. From the 1890s until the 1970s-era four-Mergenthaler's marvel dominated the field of publishing. The Linotype is a computer whose workings you can watch happen, right in front of your eyes. One of these weeks I will try to explain in this column how it works.

You already know about era five. Printers, graphic designers, and serious practitioners of the printed page believe that the Apple Macintosh computer is the true descendant of Gutenberg's development of movable type and Mergenthaler's Linotype. In the laptop model Macintosh on which I write this column each week is 1000 times the typesetting and creative power of Gutenberg and Mergenthaler combined. I wish I could show it to them both.

Although I can't do that, a similarly fascinating opportunity lies before us. Last week, a WORLD reader from Illinois arranged to give to us a historic Linotype machine, in operating condition. To it, I would like to add several other key pieces of printing equipment. Then, at our office in Asheville, we will be able to demonstrate for visitors-especially the schoolchildren who visit us each year-God's remarkable providences in making printed material possible.

We'll need the help of friends like you to make this happen. We need to locate a Gutenberg style press, along with four or five other specific items I have in mind. We'll need a genial retired printer who might volunteer to keep the equipment well oiled and to demonstrate it to visitors. We'll need a few gifts to fund a modest operating budget.


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