When I read that someone had made a documentary about the Linotype machine, I said “That’s for me.” It’s not that I’m automatically drawn to arcane subjects, but I had the great fortune to work with this mechanical marvel when I was an editor on my college newspaper, and I’ve never forgotten the experience. Thomas Edison referred to it as “the eighth wonder of the world,” yet today it is all but forgotten.
I don’t know what attracted writer-director Doug Wilson to the topic, but he’s done a first-rate job of introducing it to a contemporary audience in his enjoyable documentary. He has tracked down various keepers of the flame, including a longtime New York Times typesetter, a printing museum historian, the country’s one and only traveling repairman, a couple of young enthusiasts who continue to work on the “outmoded” machines, and a determined fellow who operates a school for anyone who wants to learn how to use a Linotype.
It was the first generation of computers that rendered Ottmar Mergenthaler’s once-revolutionary invention obsolete. That would have been unthinkable at the turn of the 20th century, when his automated typesetting machine was responsible for an unprecedented boom in printing and publishing around the world. Magazines and newspapers expanded, both in number and in size, no longer tied to the limitations of hand-set type. It’s not coincidental that Mergenthaler had experience as a watchmaker: the Linotype is an incredibly sophisticated piece of equipment that represents the Industrial Age at its zenith.
If you’re curious to see Linotype: The Film, as I was, you can download it this month from iTunes or amazon.com, thanks to FilmBuff, a relatively new digital distribution outlet.
You can read more about it and other FilmBuff releases HERE. In the meantime, enjoy the trailer: