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

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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 (7)
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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.

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