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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  • 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.

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