Image: “Just a few feet from the door, I am able to watch the final work on the Page One lockup”.
This account of the frenetic activity in the comp room prior to publication of the New York Times (The Old Grey Lady) was written by a well meaning journalist back in the glory days of hot metal newspaper publishing.
Nearby, ink-stained proofreaders sweat under the lights, trying to catch errors.
It is hard to imagine how they concentrate in all this noise and activity — a din of clattering typesetters, the swirls of rushing people, mallets banging on steel frames.
It is a muscular place, governed by strange customs and alien terms, and I try not to stray far from the elevator.
All the elements of the front page — the type for articles and headlines, the photo-engraved picture cuts, the weather and edition information that flank The New York Times logo at the top — are set into a steel frame, called a chase, atop a waist-high table known as the stone.
Dave Lidman, a makeup editor with a kindly face, motions me over and takes some of the mystery out of the operation.
He checks the whole page, reading type that is upside down and backward. If he spots an error, he does not touch the type.
It’s against the union rules for an editor to handle type, he explains, so he must ask a printer to make fixes.
When Dave is satisfied, the frame is tightened with blocks of wood and screws. Mallet blows are struck to ensure that the type is level and nothing is loose.
Then, Dave explains, the locked page is wheeled to a matrix operation, where a cardboard-like mat is pressed down on the locked-up type with enormous force — 2,100 pounds per square inch — under a cylindrical roller.
The mat, a positive image of the page, is dropped down a chute to the stereotype room five floors below.
There, the mat is curved into a half-barrel shape and molten lead is sprayed against it.
The resulting metal plate is an exact replica — in negative again — of the page set in type in the composing room.
The plate, when cooled in a bath of water, is fitted onto a cylinder of the press. Paper rolling over the inked plates will pick up the positive image.
When all is ready, the pressmen stand back, a bell rings, a button is pushed and the gargantuan presses, fed by great rolls of newsprint and tons of ink, begin to roll.
The noise is deafening.
Indeed, many pressmen are congenitally deaf. Soon the paper rolls are speeding at 1,200 feet a minute, and the presses are churning out 400,000 newspapers an hour.
It is a two-part paper, averaging 60 pages on weekdays and a whopping 436 pages on Sundays.
I WAS working on an Intertype at the Walthamstow Guardian when I managed to get a ‘Grass’ on the Sunday Telegraph (this meant working the Saturday as a casual operator) through a fellow operator who put in a word, knowhatimean?
It was a real closed society when I started, no-one told new people anything and bearing in mind that it was piecework and a docket had to be filled out for every slug of type set and there were three separate type of charges this meant you were really in the dark.
Eventually one of the older regular operators took pity on me and showed me how to charge my work, anyway that is what I thought until I found he was copying what I was charging and also charging it himself!
Anyway, I persevered not knowing if I would be called back the next Saturday until last knockings Saturday night.
Hardly any of the regulars spoke to us lower forms of life but I needed the money so I kept my head down until out of the blue I was asked if I was interested in a ‘spike’ on the Daily Telegraph night shift (called the Continunity).
As this trebled my wages from the Walthamstow Guardian I didn’t say no. When I told me wife she said that I shouldn’t take that amount of money each week as it was too much!
When I started I wasn’t allowed to write a piece docket until they felt I was fast enough (and could earn enough) for their pooled piece work. Then they had a Chapel meeting (without me) to decide if they wanted me in.
Fortunately they voted me in and I was there for the next 15 years.
When I started I made the mistake of putting up my own ingot and got jumped on by the local Natsopa bloke whose sole job it was to do that.
I also learned that the liners mustn’t be changed by the operators, although we were allowed to fix the disser stops and splashes.
Most of the machines were Linotype 48s with later Intertypes with Mohr saws for the ads in the ‘Monkey House’ (a small room attached to the Linotype room).
The Chapel ruled the whole area and the Printers kept their heads down, this encouraged the characters of the department (mostly compositors as we were too busy writing our dockets earning money). There were untold ‘trots’ (I think wind-up would be a contempory analagy)
A good one was a reel of toy gun ‘caps’ strapped round the main drive cog so when a line is sent away a machine gun like effect took place, this almost stopped the operator writing a charge, but in the end we developed a charge specially for this event!
The Father of the Chapel was the King of the whole place and to be truthful he didn’t do a lot of work, but he did the negotiating so he was given that privilege. He approved hiring and firing and untold numbers of Chapel Meetings.
I can honestly say that I enjoyed every night I went to work and looking back how privileged we were to be in that position for such a long time. Eventually it all went t*ts up, but these things happen, it certainly gave me a good living for a long period of time and was the best place I have ever ‘worked.’
Here are some old and enduring Technical terms relating to early books and printing.
Black-letter: A name (which came into use around 1600) for the form of type Gothic used by early printers, as distinguished from the ‘Roman’ type, which later prevailed.
Blockbook: A book in which each page was printed from a single block of wood, onto which both text and images were carved in reverse. Although it is often thought that blockbooks preceded the invention of printing from movable metal type, most surviving examples date from the period 1460 to 1480.
Breviary: A book containing the texts used to celebrate Divine Office each day by members of monastic orders and clergy, consisting of Psalms, Collects, and readings from Scripture and the lives of the Saints.
Catchword: A word printed at the end of a quire (a section of folded pages in order) to indicate the first word of the next page; if the catchword does not tally with the first word, this suggests that a leaf is missing, or that the quires have been bound in the wrong order.
Chase: A rectangular metal frame into which a forme, or body of type is locked, using wedges or quoins, ready for printing.
Colophon: A statement at the end of a book containing some or all of the following: name of the work, author, printer, place of printing, date. It is sometimes accompanied by a printer’s device or mark. This information was later carried on the title page.
Compositor: A person who sets, corrects and distributes type.
Pressman: The work of a person operating a hand-press.
Distributing type: Returning the individual sorts to their cases, after they have been printed. Often shortened to ‘dissing’.
Forme: The forme is the body of type, locked by the compositor into a frame called a chase, ready for printing.
Font: A complete set of upper- and lower-case letters, figures, punctuation marks and symbols, cast in one size and typeface. Typically a font would contain sufficient type to enable a printer to set several pages at one time.
Galley A three-sided shallow metal tray onto which type is transferred from a composing-stick for holding composed matter before it is split up into pages.
Galley proofs are proofs on long sheets of paper, of composed matter before it is made up into page.
Daniel in the lion’s den, from the Historie von Joseph, Daniel, Judith und Esther (Bamberg: Albrecht Pfister, 1462), f.19r. JRL 9375.
Pfister is an even more shadowy figure than Johann Gutenberg, and what is known of him comes from analysis of the nine editions he is generally thought to have printed.
Trained as a cleric, he worked in Bamberg, Germany, and by 1460 he was acting as secretary to the prince-bishop of the city.
As a printer he is credited with being responsible for two innovations in the use of the new technology: printing books in the German language, and printing woodcut illustrations at the same time as the type.
He produced the first printed editions of popular German stories, Der Ackermann aus Boehmen, a poetic dialogue between the ‘Ploughman’ and ‘Death’ who has deprived him of his young wife, and a collection of fables entitled Der Edelstein.
The John Rylands Library holds the only complete examples in Britain of books printed by Pfister, including his Historie von Joseph, Daniel, Judith und Esther and the Biblia Pauperum of 1462.
Having worked in the printing industry you do see some very weird things from time to time.
In the days of hot metal at least it was some fun.
I can remember a bloke who had been at the pub for his dinner break.
He went back to work pissed and then decided to throw a paragraph of hot metal type away so that he could get the front page of the daily newspaper to fit.
Only problem was that if you were reading the lead article on the front page and turned the page it disappeared.
He got the boot for that.
When I was a young apprentice and being a Protestant and not being familiar with the terminology of the Catholic Church I read the abbreviation “Fr.” in a Funeral Notice as meaning “Friar” (as in Tuck) and set it accordingly.
The Priest presiding at the service was most unimpressed.
Anyway, here is another big Stuff Up…read the caption below carefully.