The End of an Era: A Short Film About The Last Day of Hot Metal Typesetting at The New York Times (1978)

This is usu­al­ly what hap­pens when I write a piece for Open Cul­ture: As I drink an over­priced cof­fee at my local cof­fee shop, I research a top­ic on the inter­net, write and edit an arti­cle on Microsoft Word and then copy and paste the whole thing into Word­Press. My edi­tor in Open Cul­ture’s gleam­ing inter­na­tion­al head­quar­ters up in Palo Alto gives it a look-over and then, with the push of a but­ton, pub­lish­es the arti­cle on the site.

It’s sober­ing to think what I casu­al­ly do over the course of a morn­ing would require the effort of dozens of peo­ple 40 years ago.

Until the 1970s, with the rise in pop­u­lar­i­ty of com­put­er type­set­ting, news­pa­pers were print­ed the same way for near­ly a cen­tu­ry. Lino­type machines would cast one line at a time from molten lead. Though an improve­ment from hand­set type, where print­ers would assem­ble lines of type one char­ac­ter at a time, lino­type still required numer­ous skilled print­ers to assem­ble each and every news­pa­per edi­tion.

The New York Times tran­si­tioned from that ven­er­at­ed pro­duc­tion method to com­put­er type­set­ting on Sun­day, July 2, 1978. David Loeb Weiss, a proof­read­er at the Times, doc­u­ment­ed this final day in the doc­u­men­tary Farewell — Etaoin Shrd­lu.

The title of the movie, by the way, comes from the first two lines of a printer’s key­board, which are arranged accord­ing to a letter’s fre­quen­cy of use. When a print­er typed “etaoin shrd­lu,” it meant that the line had a mis­take in it and should be dis­card­ed.

Watch­ing the movie, you get a sense of just how much work went into each page and how print­ers were skilled crafts­men. (You try spot­ting a typo on a page of upside down and back­wards type.) The film also cap­tures the furi­ous ener­gy and the cacoph­o­ny of clinks and clanks of the com­pos­ing room. You can see just how much phys­i­cal work was involved. After all, each page was print­ed off of a 40-pound plate made of lead.

The tone of the movie is under­stand­ably melan­choly. The work­ers are bid­ding farewell to a job that had exist­ed for decades. “All the knowl­edge I’ve acquired over my 26 years is all locked up in a lit­tle box now called a com­put­er,” notes one print­er. “And I think most jobs are going to end up the same way.” Some­one else wrote the fol­low­ing on the com­pos­ing room’s chalk­board. “The end of an era. Good while it last­ed. Cry­ing won’t help.”

You can watch the full doc­u­men­tary above. It will also be added to our list of 200 Free Doc­u­men­taries, a sub­set of our meta col­lec­tion, 4,000+ Free Movies Online: Great Clas­sics, Indies, Noir, West­erns, Doc­u­men­taries & More.

H/T @Kirstin­But­ler

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Friedrich Nietzsche’s Curi­ous Type­writer, the “Malling-Hansen Writ­ing Ball”

53 New York Times Videos Teach Essen­tial Cook­ing Tech­niques: From Poach­ing Eggs to Shuck­ing Oys­ters

The Art of Col­lo­type: See a Near Extinct Print­ing Tech­nique, as Lov­ing­ly Prac­ticed by a Japan­ese Mas­ter Crafts­man

Mark Twain Wrote the First Book Ever Writ­ten With a Type­writer

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow. And check out his blog Veep­to­pus, fea­tur­ing lots of pic­tures of vice pres­i­dents with octo­pus­es on their heads.  The Veep­to­pus store is here.

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Comments (8)
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  • David Shapcott says:

    I was the last Print­ers Dev­il (gal­ley boy) at the Couri­er Mail in Bris­bane Qld Aus­tralia. I used to run cor­rec­tions out to the Lino­type oper­a­tors then col­lect the cor­rect­ed lines and proof them on a small press and send them down to the Read­ers via a cap­sule in an air tube. I start­ed in the indus­try in 1975 doss­ing cold type (return­ing indi­vid­ual let­ters to the large cas­es of type), I did my appren­tice­ship as a letterpress/Litho machin­ist from 1980- 1984, by 1990 I was teach­ing myself how to use a mac­plus with Illus­tra­tor 88 and quark, I was employed as a com­put­er guy in the pre­press depart­ment from 1993–2009 and then made redun­dant. I saw the whole indus­try from indi­vid­ual lead let­ters to direct to press print­ing in half a life­time. I still have scars on my arms from run­ning hot lead at 17 years old a per­ma­nent reminder of the good old days. Thanks for the link.

  • Mark Ostrom says:

    I was on the first wave of Desk­top Pub­lish­ing, and the use of Laser Print­ers, just a few years after this film was made. All that mas­sive com­put­er tech­nol­o­gy is now just one tiny part of your PC. I watched super tal­ent­ed sketch and fash­ion artists put out of work by pho­tog­ra­phers. I watched them strug­gle to learn com­put­ers after years of doing things care­ful­ly by hand, and I watched careers end and peo­ple become dis­cour­aged and give up on life basi­cal­ly because of the changes. Progress over­all just SUCKS. because no on both­ered to con­sid­er the human fac­tor of less peo­ple being employed and the end of the mid­dle class.

  • Mark Ostrom says:

    We are mem­oirs of a dead skill aren’t we? I’m now a Mac tech­ni­cian, with zero con­tact with the old ways. blah.

  • Tracey Johnson says:

    Thanks for shar­ing this. My father was a lino­typ­ist for a small news­pa­per in Ohio, and he was part of the tran­si­tion from type­set­ting to com­put­ers. I always found it fas­ci­nat­ing that my dad, with his eighth-grade edu­ca­tion and lim­it­ed lit­er­a­cy skills, was respon­si­ble for trans­mit­ting the news from the reporters to the read­ers. He served in both WWII and the Kore­an War and, when he returned from ser­vice, some­how end­ed up in an appren­tice­ship pro­gram at our tiny home­town paper in West Vir­ginia. Dad was very adept mechan­i­cal­ly but not as skilled in book learn­ing — hence, Mom read his books and took the writ­ten tests for him while he com­plet­ed the hands-on work.

    Com­put­ers came to his news­pa­per when he was 59 years old. He tried valiant­ly to gain the key­board­ing skills nec­es­sary to tran­si­tion to the new ways, but he just could­n’t do it. His deeply-ingrained stan­dard of get­ting every­thing cor­rect imped­ed his abil­i­ty to meet the words-per-minute require­ment to keep his job. By 60 he was laid off and too young for Social Secu­ri­ty — all while I was a col­lege fresh­man. It was dif­fi­cult to watch his anger at his union, tech­nol­o­gy, news­pa­per own­ers, him­self. He made peace with his lot in life but not before our fam­i­ly endured some trou­bled times.

    iron­i­cal­ly, I’m endur­ing my sec­ond employ­ment lay­off in five years and con­sid­er­ing return­ing to school for a com­put­er sys­tems cer­ti­fi­ca­tion of some sort. I occa­sion­al­ly see var­i­ous lost arts bub­bling up on Etsy — per­haps type­set­ting will expe­ri­ence a renais­sance some day.

  • Margaret-Rose Stringer says:

    That video must be one of the most fas­ci­nat­ing I’ve ever seen online.

    The thought I’m left with is not so much how impres­sive is mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy as how astound­ing­ly impres­sive were those inven­tions that enabled lino-type print­ing !

  • Tony Warren says:

    This brings back mem­o­ries of my teens. My father was a jour­ney­man press­man and start­ed a print­ing busi­ness in our sub­ur­ban home. I was the print­er’s dev­il and after school I would do clean-up work as well as run­ning var­i­ous press­es. I can well remem­ber learn­ing on how to use the Lino­type to help out.

    This led to all of my pals hav­ing busi­ness cards and a pret­ty brisk busi­ness of cre­at­ing fake ID’s for booze and movies.

    When I took over the busi­ness we had moved out of our house and I began the road of bring­ing our firm into the mod­ern era of mak­ing images. We were bleed­ing edge in using the new graph­ic user inter­face of Microsoft Word into the world of laser type­set­ting. We were the first print­er in our mar­ket to be able to do on-the-screen lay­out and go direct from our PC’s to plate. In the course of this we cre­at­ed the sec­ond Microsoft Win­dows prod­uct ever.

    Long ago we got out of print­ing an into oth­er things, but I well remem­ber using the tools of the trade from this film.

  • Tony Warren says:

    Those lino­type machines were mechan­i­cal works of art.

  • Lionel Thomas Hendry says:

    They set up a cosy retire­ment for a lot of oper­a­tors.

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