Voices

My Linotype

Thinking about communications a century ago-and tomorrow

Issue: "Supreme Court fight," July 23, 2005

Just like I did during the month of July in 1958, I'm spending the month of July in 2005 preoccupied with a Linotype machine. And with the internet.

I've already recounted in this space how, just out of high school, I decided to take the $2,000 I had saved up for college and invest it instead in a 30-year-old used Model 8 Linotype. After all, even in the late '50s, a Linotype operator could earn $10-$12 an hour. With a little industry, I could leverage that purchase into a way to pay for all four years of college.

So I spent that July managing the logistics of loading the 2,500-pound behemoth onto a U-Haul trailer in Dubuque, Iowa, hauling it behind my grandfather's '53 Ford Victoria to St. Louis, Mo., and attempting to install it in a basement room. I was pretty good on a Linotype keyboard, but a total incompetent at moving heavy equipment. When a chain snapped, the whole marvelous machine tumbled down a concrete stairway. Both it and my personal finances lay in dusty ruins.

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Incredibly, my love affair with the machine Thomas Edison called the "Eighth Wonder of the World" survived that adolescent catastrophe. If you have ever watched a Linotype operate-clicking and clacking, while shaping molten lead into printable slugs-you would understand why. It is better than the most fantastic Rube Goldberg contraption you could ever imagine. But besides that, it had a practical purpose. Indeed, the Linotype did as much for civilization at the birth of the 20th century as the computer did 100 years later. One historian says that before the Linotype, America had only 300 personal libraries with as many as 1,000 books. The newspaper and magazine industries exploded.

That's why, seven years ago, I became obsessed with the need for preserving a bit of that history for young people who had no idea how hard it used to be to put a printed image on a piece of paper. Could I find a working Linotype, I wondered, and put it in a context where boys and girls could come and watch its mechanical wonders?

And that's when several of you WORLD readers jumped in and made my little dream come true. With remarkable generosity, you contributed not only a Linotype, but a Washington-era hand press, two platen presses, a proof press, an imposing table, and several dozen fonts of Gutenberg-style movable type. All of it worked-which was my main goal. There's not much kick in walking kids by a dusty machine. But let them see their own name formed in a still-too-hot-to-handle slug of lead!

So over the next several years, by my somewhat informal count, several thousand people visited our little museum, tucked away in the corner of a warehouse where we serviced customers of the God's World Book Club, a partner of WORLD magazine. Classroom field trips, homeschool groups, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and senior citizen groups were all intrigued with this magic from the past. Two or three times a week, I got to drop what I was doing and get my fingers dirty again playing Benjamin Franklin.

Now, however, several events have intruded on that happy scenario. One is that our company this summer has agreed to sell the God's World Book Club to an excellent new owner based in Arkansas-and is this month closing down the warehouse that our little museum has called home. We've got to find new quarters if we're to continue. Second, the machinists who service century-old Linotypes are themselves getting along in years; they're much harder to find than they were even 20 years ago. A heating element on the Linotype we have has burned out, and getting it replaced isn't quite as simple as getting your car's tires rotated.

And all this comes right in the middle of a commitment I've made to our company to explore not how people communicated a century or two ago, but how boys and girls (and their moms and dads as well!) will be learning the day's news in the years just ahead. We're assembling a task force to spend several days over the next year brainstorming that issue, and making sure we're ahead of that curve instead of behind it.

So I'm spending this July in the awkward posture of looking backward and forward at the very same time. I'm trying to remember my pastor's counsel that windshields are purposely much bigger than rearview mirrors. But that doesn't make it any easier to think about saying a final farewell to such a venerable friend.

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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