Printing history and the Intertype linotype machine
During my years as collections manager in the Graphic Arts Collection I’ve dusted many a linotype machine, but have never had the opportunity to actually use one. So I attended an intensive class that included letterpress printing, and was given the opportunity to use an Intertype linotype. The machine, a typecasting machine was manufactured in the United States in the 1910s. The model C was advertised as being a three-magazine model, capable of holding three different font sizes at once.
On a linotype machine like the Intertype, you type out the letters on the keyboard that you want the machine to cast. The machine lines up the type matrices for each letter. You can then review the representative letters to determine if the line is typeset correctly.
Pressing a lever sends the group of matrices further into the machine where molten lead is sent into their casting parts. Then, by a miracle it would seem, the finished line of type is sent out of the machine to cool, where it can be checked again. When the lines are all cast they are removed to a proofing location in correct printing order.
My class project was to reproduce a version of the Gettysburg Address, a relatively difficult task for a first timer. The first day using the Intertype was painful. (Yes, I’m smiling in the photo, but it was taken the day after I successfully produced the central text of the Address.) The letters on the matrices are brightly colored to assist the type caster. The Baskerville 14 point font that I used the first day was not marked well. (Note: Other styles of linotype machines include a reading lamp!)
To print the colophon (the production notes below the Address) I needed to cast from smaller size type matrices from a different Intertype magazine. The bright colors on that set of matrices were much more legible or, who knows, I also could have become more skilled in the art of typecasting.
After casting all the type I was able to lay out the design for the final document to be printed and lock up the lines of type with larger wood type (for the title) and the cuts (engraved illustrations) of the stars and lobster, for decoration. (I was unable to resist the temptation to include the lobster – we were printing the document in Maine after all!)
All told, my typecasting and letterpress press printing training was a trial-by-fire (or lead) experience which allowed me to feel the pain and suffering, and the pride and joy of the printer. Long live the printer!
Joan Boudreau is a curator in the Graphic Arts printing and printmaking collections at the National Museum of American History.