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.
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.