Reasonable Words: The Linotype

Just finished Keith Houston’s informative and droll Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols & Other Typographical Marks, a book teeming with a lot of news about such creatures as the pilcrow, interrobang, octothorpe, and the surprisingly complicated history of the hyphen.

This last is of course related to the rules for word division, which once upon a time, long before computer word processing programs relieved us from this task, writers (even mere typers, like myself) were supposed to master. I took typing in high school and I doubt ever correctly applied the 10 rules for word hyphenation–not sure I even learned them.

While illuminating the hyphen, Houston takes us on a side trip to the Linotype and Monotype machines, nearly mythic to me–as both my parents started in journalism in the era of hot type. These wildly complicated contraptions automated the setting of type, but they still left hyphenation up to the operators. This was least of their worries, as Houston relates:

A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.
A Linotype machine at the Charles River Museum of Industry in Waltham, MA.

“For all the speed gained over hand composition, there were dangers inherent in the machines that required their users to work beside bubbling crucibles of molten lead. The joy of mechanically setting line after line o’ type came with the added frisson that a “squirt” might occur at any time: any detritus caught between two adjacent Linotype matrices would allow molten type metal to jet through the gap. And aside from the immediate dangers of seared flesh, operators of both Linotype and Monotypes ran the more insidious risk of poisoning from the (highly flammable) benzene used to clean matrices, the natural gas that some machines burned to melt the type metal, and the fumes emitted by the molten type metal itself.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Makes my regular carping about the annoyances of WordPress seem a little silly! Updating versions has not, as yet, required me to dodge squirts of molten lead, but God knows what they are thinking up for the next release.

BTW, Houston has a blog on the same topic–also charming, but somehow this topic seems to really twinkle in book form.

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