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 San Fran­cis­co 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.

Note: This post orig­i­nal­ly appeared on our site in August 2015.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Inge­nious Type­writer That Prints Musi­cal Nota­tion: The Keaton Music Type­writer Patent­ed in 1936

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

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

The Endur­ing Ana­log Under­world of Gramer­cy Type­writer

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 (4)
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  • Stuart Parker says:

    How won­der­ful! I have fond mem­o­ries of the ‘Comp Room’ at the Man­ches­ter Even­ng News and Guardian. Flongs, halftones, slugs, miters, read­ers, copy boys, chas­es, lead. And no Qwer­ty key­boards on the Lino­type machines.
    Loved the noise, heat, 5 dai­ly edi­tions and imme­di­a­cy of it. Lucky to have expe­ri­enced it all.
    Thank you for shar­ing.

  • Steve Maersch says:

    The Mil­wau­kee Jour­nal, where I worked from 1969 to 1995, con­vert­ed to Hen­drix com­put­ers in 1976. The
    entire com­pa­ny was com­put­er­ized, and I believe the Jour­nal and its morn­ing cousin the Sen­tinel, were
    the first total­ly com­put­er­ized papers in the US.
    I fond­ly remem­ber the hot-lead sys­tem. My first job out of col­lege was at the Chica­go Tri­bune. Yes, in the com­pos­ing room we had to read upside down from trays of type. One day I got tired of that and pressed my left arm over the tray and there was enough ink left on it so I could read the type straight on.
    The Jour­nal-Sen­tinel com­pos­ing room was a very noisy place. The click­ing-clack of the Mer­gen­thaler
    Line-O-Type machines, the sound of heavy steel carts tak­ing the page forms to the hot-led pro­cess­ing
    machines, and the sound of press-ready semi­cir­cu­lar plates being rolled to the press room.
    Most of the Line-O-Type oper­a­tors were deaf.
    Com­put­er­i­za­tion cut the time a sto­ry was press-ready from 42 min­utes to about 8.

  • James Turnbull says:

    Worked 27 years, night shift on a Mel­bourne (Aus­tralian Cap­i­tal of Vic­to­ria) dai­ly morn­ing broad­sheet cas­si­fied paper. Saw changeover to pho­to type­set­ting, first cut & paste. Then to screen make­up, clas­si­fied adverts made mil­lions of $‘s for David Syme (fam­i­ly owned), but now owned by a tele­vi­sion com­pa­ny. Chan­nel 9.

  • John Sentes says:

    I am a Cana­di­an, Saskatchewan born, worked for the Leader-Post for 42 years. I, too, went through the process.… very fond mem­o­ries! Only a Com­pos­ing Room Print­er would under­stand!

    As Bob Hope would say, “Thanks for the Mem­o­ries”!!

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