Linotype

Tuesday 14 February 2012

I saw Linotype, the Film last night, and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's ostensibly about the Linotype machine, the first real improvement in printing technology since Gutenberg. But it's also about the people who are still devoted to this marvel, well after it has been supplanted by digital technology, and a quirky and entertaining bunch they are.

I heard about the movie when I went to the Boston Printing Office auction last year. The Linotype movie guys were there filming, and a number of shots from there are in the finished film, though I am not...

Afterwards, there was a Q&A panel with local interviewees from the movie, including the type designer Matthew Carter, who had designed faces for Linotype. He made an interesting comment about the freedom type designers enjoyed once the technology transitioned from metal to photo-typesetting. For example, the Linotype combined roman and italic, or roman and bold, so that the letters of each had to be the same width, a difficult constraint given the inherent differences between the three styles. Another constraint lifted was the need for the symbol to remain within its set-width, a release which enabled liberated scripts like Carter's Snell Roundhand.

I found the technological implications of the machine, its rise, and its demise, fascinating. Design is never completely unencumbered, it's always working within contemporary technological constraints.

I went looking today at other information about the machine itself, and found this extremely detailed instructional video about the workings of the Linotype, part 1, and part 2. It is awe-inspiring how intricate the Linotype was, and how many different functions had to be bundled into this one machine. There's even a small part involving binary numbers: the matrices are binary coded to deliver them back to the proper place in the magazine.

I think about the intricacies of the "machines" I build, and wish that I could lay them out the way these videos lay out the operation of the Linotype. Software has layers upon layers, which seems like a barrier to simple explanations, but if the Linotype can be explained like this, I'm sure software can be described more clearly also.

All in all, I've been thinking about the movie a lot. All I can say is, If you get a chance to see Linotype, the Film, do it.

Comments

[gravatar]
tolomea 8:23 PM on 14 Feb 2012

In a similar vein I'm quite fond of the old mechanical fire control computers. These were analog mechanical devices for determining the angle and inclination to set on ship gun barrels, based on the properties of the gun and ammo and integration of the movements of both vessels, all in real time. This youtube series lays out some of the basic components http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpkTHyfr0pM

[gravatar]
Yann 7:51 AM on 15 Feb 2012

Ned, will you be in a documentary, 30 years down the road, perhaps about Django? I wonder if future programmers will marvel at the complexity of today's code. Will the Linux kernel become so refined that essentially all programmer will overlook what goes on under the hood?

[gravatar]
jay graves 8:49 AM on 15 Feb 2012

I came to post about the mechanical computers for fire control but tolomea beat me to it. Fascinating stuff.

Here is a document on the same thing. http://www.hnsa.org/doc/firecontrol/index.htm

[gravatar]
Ned Batchelder 6:33 AM on 16 Feb 2012

Thanks, guys, the fire control "computers" were indeed amazing. Hard to imagine building and running something like that, but that was the technology they had available to them.

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