Back to IndieWire

Under The Radar: Linotype–The Film

Under The Radar: Linotype--The Film

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, 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:

This Article is related to: Reviews and tagged ,


Timothy Trower

When Doug Wilson wandered into my print shop about seven years ago, neither of us realized that Linotype: The Film would be the result. I honestly don't remember showing Doug the machine, although he has vivid memories of the first time that he saw a working Linotype. When, about twenty-six months ago he approached me with the idea of filming a short documentary (perhaps eight minutes) I welcomed the idea of someone doing a right and proper job of showing how the machine worked.

What I never dreamed of is the creation that this small effort became. Aside from filming at my shop eight or nine times (nearly all of the workings of a Linotype are of my Blue Streak Model 5, manufactured in 1948) Doug, Jess and Brandon have captured the fight of myself and many others to preserve this machine. They also captured footage of my father, already in failing health, as he ran the Linotype machine for what turned out to be the final time.

Linotype: The Film is more than just a documentary of the Linotype machine, but homage to the hundreds of thousands of operators who came before me. At age 49, I am one of the youngest operators out there, but I don't know half as much about the machine as any of these old timers who sat at the machine for forty years and then showed up to work one day to find this machine they both loved and hated replaced by phototype.

Thank you, Mr. Maltin, for a great review of this film. I'll archive this page as I have so many others to leave as a legacy for my children and grandchildren; I am afraid that, indeed, the fate of my two machines will be less than glorious unless I can find a young man or woman who is just smart enough to keep them running, and just crazy enough to think it is fun.

Tim Trower
White Star Service Company
Springfield, Missouri


I began working at a newspaper in '77 just as the linotypes were being replaced. The Composing Room guys began to visibly shrink a little when they switched from hefting pages of lead type and steel engravings to flat pasteups of "cold type", creating almost-as-light printing plates by a photographic process instead of molds. Today a lot of content — text and image — never exists on paper until the newspaper itself is actually printed (unless it's for one of our websites, in which case it may never see wood pulp at all).

We still have one last linotype on display in our lobby, along with an even more ancient hand press. Somewhere along the line somebody decided to spiff them both up with shiny red paint and chrome.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *