Hot or Cold

Webster’s defines a composing room as “the department in a printing office where typesetting and related operations are performed.”  When I started working in the newspaper business in high school, I saw the real inspiration for the term — the loud, hot, wheezy machines known as the Linotypes. Invented in the 1880s and relegated to the scrap heap almost a century later, Linotypes opened the “hot type” era where molten metal was cast into individual lines of letters and symbols at the touch of a keystroke. At the time, it was the greatest advancement in print since Gutenberg.

There’s a new documentary about the Linotype and here’s a trailer.
I got to use a Linotype once at the end of a high school newspaper internship. The paper was in the process of moving to “cold” type,   computerized printed sheets of type that were made into plates and put on the press. Something had gone haywire with our truly state-of-the-art system that night. It was a summer night in 1977 and well after midnight when the final morning edition was being put to bed. A single Linotype remained in the corner of the floor, half museum piece, half emergency equipment. Having nothing else to do, the printers (the term for the guys who put the pages together) fired it up as a joke as we waited for the “new” technology to get fixed. One waved me over and asked if I wanted to try it.
I did. We were playing around with a piece of sports copy. But I remember the rapid-fire clicks of the machine as I touched the keys, the smell of the grease mixed in with that indefinable composing room smell…metal, paraffin, sandwiches and coffee, cigarettes, sweaty guy, probably a few more I didn’t want to know. I typed a couple of lines, got up and gave the others loitering about their turn. I went back to reading proofs, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder. “Here you go,” said Ray, who used to be one of a fleet of Linotype operators in that building. He pressed two little metal pieces in my hand — the lines I had typed.
They’re in a box somewhere. I really should go looking for them.