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Farewell - ETAOIN SHRDLU - 1978

Crystal Shaulis

Last month while browsing reddit, the word 'typesetting' jumped out at me from a link on the front page, with a description that read 'The death of typesetting and its final day at the New York Times". The word 'typesetting' in relation to lead type had never come up outside of my work at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center or the niche online communities I frequent. This was a link to a documentary about the role of the Linotype machine at, you guessed it, the New York Times.

It's a short yet insightful film that leaves you with a sense of melancholy. In a foreshadowing interview, one worker laments that the knowledge he has acquired over the previous 26 years will now sit inside a box, the computer, and that this will likely be the future of many other jobs. There's a stark contrast between working in the composing room versus the computer room. What a tough transition to make, from an industrial landscape filled with clanking noise, molten lead, dirty hands and a machine that had remained the same for over 100 years -- to a quiet and sterile office filled only with the sounds of clicking keys and neat rows of softly humming computers. After a lifetime, how does one go from ETAOIN SHRDLU to QWERTY? It must have been difficult.

I've never had the pleasure to work with a Linotype machine, but have seen one in person. Jeff Abshear, director of the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, brought a group of us study abroad students to Italy and also visited the print studio of a woman who owned one of these relics. With this trip being my first introduction to the book arts, I was both over and underwhelmed. One, because I had no frame of reference for what this machine was and therefore could not appreciate the role it played in history, and two -- it was huge with so many parts! Unexpectedly, the artist was not in town so not being able to see it in use contributed a museum feel to the artist's space rather than a living piece of history.  

Having watched this video, I've gained a new appreciation for that studio visit years ago. Combing through the many photos taken during this trip, I found a few that now have meaning (see below). And sometimes, while rattling around the KBAC studio, I come across strange slugs of lead with text; the letters of each word appearing as if they were tiles that had been carefully affixed to the top of blocks of metal. I now know this was text created long ago by someone sitting at a Linotype machine. 

Linotype MachineLinotype Machine
Linotype MachineLinotype Machine


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