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18 July 2013

Before toner — hot lead

Jack, our Client Services Co-ordinator, is no stranger to the written word. An article online has brought back memories of typesetting at the Wanganui Chronicle. He writes:

Memory of times past
With much enjoyment I read the Dominion Post article about the printing museum finding a new home. 

Take a look at the article on the Dominion Post website

In the article, Bill Nairn is pictured sitting at a typesetting machine (the erroneous caption on the website version refers to it as a printing press).

Setting slugs and dodging splashes
This Linotype machine enabled a character matrix, together with spacers that justified the line, to cast a ‘slug’ — a line of type. (That’s why these machines are called ‘linotypes’.) Each slug was created when a mixture that was mostly molten lead was forced into the mould, casting one line at a time.

The end result was rows of type that were assembled and inked. Paper was then placed on top and pressure applied to transfer the ink. Letterpress was born.

All Linotype operators have memories of ‘splashes’. These happened when the row of matrix were sent to the casting wheel and didn’t align with the mould. Skilled operators knew what was about to happen.

Down came the plunger squirting hot metal — not just over the machine, but also over any slow-moving operator. Health and safety was minimal in those days and the worst part was the time wasted clearing the metal from the Linotype. Usually 15 minutes and it was all go again. Fortunately the hot lead soon cooled, so you could peel it off your overalls like candle wax.

Real machines needed running repairs
Batteries of these machines lined the composing room of newspapers and commercial shops worldwide. Each required maintenance like any other machinery. Many moving parts such as cams, belts, slides, rails and the melting pots all needed attention to enable the machine to function best.

Labour intensive, each had its own character and a good operator produced millions of Ems and Ens of text during his time as an apprentice or a journeyman (not gender inclusive because it was very much a man’s trade).

Today most people understand that toner miraculously sticks to the paper, with no smudging, and copier problems are more about paper. Progress has brought us a long way.

Footnote: The first 12 of the 91 keys on the Linotype keyboard are etaoinshrdlu, a syndicate name I put on my weekly Golden Kiwi ticket. I never won a major prize, so no announcer ever had to try to pronounce it!


  1. Great stuff, Jack! At least toner splashes are less of a menace than hot lead.

  2. Jack tells me that he had to read text back-to-front and upside-down!