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Thomas Edison called the linotype the "eighth wonder of the world." (Copyright Linotype: The Film)

Long Before The Internet, The Linotype Sped Up The News

by Doug Wilson
May 28, 2012 (All Things Considered)

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As part of a new tech segment, we're occasionally going to be looking at a concept, invention or tool that's altered the way the world works. To start things off, we asked Doug Wilson, director of Linotype: The Film, to tell us about — what else? — the linotype.

The linotype is this massive machine that produced printable type for newspapers. Before the linotype, you had to use people standing at cases, grabbing pieces of type one at a time ... and this machine created an entire line of type at once — that's why it was called the linotype. And it just exploded printing and exploded ... communication in a way that we can only now kind of understand through the Internet or through Twitter or Facebook or things like that.

The linotype is a combination between a typewriter, a pop machine and a backhoe. [It] was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant. He invented the machine in 1886 and it immediately exploded. There were thousands of people that were trying to invent a mechanical typesetting machine but Mergenthaler was the genius that actually made it work.

The linotype works ... [by] moving these small, brass pieces around the machine. And these pieces are molds of a letter and they're about the size of a postage stamp ... These molds are made into printable type because the machine pumps molten metal into [them] and thus creates a line of type.

The linotype allowed for a daily newspaper. Before the linotype, most small towns only had a weekly newspaper, so you were getting week-old news. And then, all of a sudden, you're getting day-old or sometimes even hour-old news. That's a massive change.

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