Printer's jargon

In 1977, the Palo Alto Times shifted from "hot type" (molten lead cast into letters and lines of type) to "cold type" (type set by computers and printed out of photographic paper to be pasted up into pages.)

Jay Thorwaldson, then a reporter, wrote the following article for the Timesinternal newsletter, the Hellbox, commemorating the passing of an entire generation of printing terms for equipment and techniques. He was assisted by his father-in-law, Paul (Spinney) Spohn, a longtime typesetter and printer at the San Jose Mercury who began his printing career at age 13 in Indiana, and by members of the "backshop" of the Palo Alto Times. Thorwaldson presently is editor of the Palo Alto Weekly.

Brackets indicate notes and updates for 2000.

When Hot Type Went Cold at the Palo Alto Times: The day the old terms died.

By Jay Thorwaldson

A whole generation of words has disappeared from the Times "backshop".

A new generation of words has entered.

Some have changed meaning, evolving with the printing process itself.

Terms such as slug (a line of lead), chase, quoin, turtle, Linotype, and even hellbox - except for what you're reading - are never heard in the printing shop of the Times. Computer terms and things relating to paste-up have taken over in the transition first from "hot type" to "cold type" and then to computerization.

The Linotype was Mergenthaler's brand name of hot-type composition machine. The name was used informally for all such machines. The Times, however, used a different brand, the Harris Intertype. The big, clanking invention dated from the late 1800s and set the 30-word-per-minute pace of typesetting for several generations.

TTS (teletypesetter) speeded the process up by using perforated tape instead of manual operation, to about 300 words per minute. [Perf tape, a "player piano" method of setting type, entered the scene at many newspapers in the late 1960s, greeted by grumblings and derision from old-time printers because of the high number of mistakes initially.]

The new photocomposition machines, the plain orange and tan boxes in the backshop, put out about 3,000 words per minute, all in ready-to-paste columns with headlines attached.

All very efficient. But maybe not so romantic as the rows of Linotypes and Intertypes, with their wheels turning and metal arms moving and brass "mats"(letter molds) falling into their keyed slots.

When the printer typed letters on the wide keyboards, the mats fell into a mold and molten lead was forced against them. When the lead hardened, it was called a slug. The slugs fell into a tray to form a "galley" of type, to be carried around on metal trays.

Before the Linotype era, type was set by hand from a "type case" in which the most frequently-used letters were the most numerous and most centrally located. [Type cases were one of the first examples of "time-and motion" studies.]

Even after Linotypes, most larger headlines - too big for the Linotype molds - were hand set from large brass mats in a type case, called the Ludlow system. The lines of type were set in a "stick," a metal frame, that would be placed in a lead mold. In the older "old days" of printing, the head type would be set directly into the flatbed pages using carved hardwood letters or large lead letters. [Early newspaper headline type, especially in pioneer papers in the West, often had thick, squat letters, such as the Chronicle used from the 1950s into the 1980s, because they stood up better to being dropped and bumped than thin letters.] A name "cast in Ludlow" or set in a Linotype slug was a souvenir of backshop visits to generations of people.

The printers would pull "galley proofs" for "proofreaders" to check for errors. After the type was set into galleys and the heads were set, also stored in galley trays, the printers would begin "making up" the pages.

There were two types of level makeup tables: "stones," or large wooden tables covered with marble or another hard surface, and "turtles," small [but very heavy] metal tables mounted on wheels so they could be pushed around without the printers having to lift and move the heavy made-up pages.

A large metal frame called a "chase" was placed on the stone or turtle, and the type would be placed inside it. "Line rules" - long lead slugs with a line that would print on the final paper - were placed between the galleys of type as they were put into the pages.

The printers used "line gauges," or metal rulers with special pica measurements, to measure how much type to take from a galley to put into the chase. They also used a small hand tool called a makeup rule to clean the lead type of any traces of extra lead. [There are six picas to an inch and 12 "points" to a pica. Many computer-layout systems still use the pica system because of the precision and ease of use.]

The printers clipped the long lead slug and line rules with a special set of pliers called a "slug cutter," or used a table saw to cut thicker slugs or groups of slugs.

Wooden or blank-lead blocks would be placed wherever a photograph was to appear in the page, and a "zinc" engraving would be mounted there.

Galleys of short "filler" items - such as a paragraph telling how many llamas there are in Peru - would be kept on hand to fill up small spaces at the bottom of stories. These items were also called "crap," clearly a double-meaning word that came to be synonymous with "filler." Thus, when a printer said someone's head was "full of crap" it could be a compliment of sorts, meaning the person knew a lot of miscellaneous facts.

When the type was in the chase, the printer would fill up any loose areas with lead slugs of various thicknesses and lengths, stored usually in a "slug rack" above the stone or turtles. An "elrod" machine made the blank slugs.

There were wooden space-filling slugs, also called "reglets." When the page was filled out, the printer would then hammer the type level by hitting a wooden block "planer" with a mallet across the top of the type. He might use a "brayer," or hand ink roller, to ink the type so a "page proof" could be made, either by placing a piece of paper over it and hammering on it with the planer or running the page through a "proof press." The printer would tighten the type into place with "quoins" placed along two inside edges of the chase between the type and the outer frame.

Chases had no bottoms, so only side pressure held in the type when they were lifted up. Quoins were small metal gadgets that would expand and lock when a "quoin key" was turned in a hole in the center of each quoin. Early quoins consisted just of two separate wedges that would be forced together with a mallet. If a printer failed to tighten the quoins sufficiently, or failed to put in enough filler slugs, the type would fall out the bottom when the filled chase was lifted. That was called "pieing" the type. Galleys could also be pied.

A pied page was a true catastrophe in almost any newspaper printing shop, because of the work needed to put it all together again. Most of the time, everything had to be set over again.

In the early days, "flatbed" presses were used. The flat chases of type were mounted directly in the press, and a big roller would roll across them, pressing the sheet of newsprint onto the inked type. In late 1800s presses, the pressman had to feed each sheet of paper into the press individually. Clamps would hold one end of each sheet onto a big drum, which would roll over the pages of type.

With the introduction of the "rotary" presses, such as the big Goss press of the Times, there had to be a way to bend the type to fit the round cylinders of the presses. The process is still [1977] called stereotyping, or converting a flat page of type into a round format for "letterpress" printing.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, a new form of "offset" printing was devised that combined photography, paste-up of "cold" type (meaning no hot lead was involved) and a chemical process on the press itself that allows the ink only to stick to the parts of a metal plate that have been treated.

Most major newspapers still use letterpress presses, however, because the letterpress printing plates hold up better under long press runs. [Improvements in offset technology have since displaced most letterpress presses.]

The early stereotype process from the lead-filled chases consisted of placing a cardboard-type mat on them and running the type and mat under a high-pressure roller. That left indentations in the cardboard for each letter and dark-space photographs.

The "mats" were then processed by placing cardboard tape on the back of them wherever there was a high spot, or dark area on the final page, and bending them into a lead mold. When the molten lead cooled in a few minutes, the mat would be removed, the lead would be trimmed to fit the press, and "routed" with a special machine to lower the lead where large white spaces were supposed to be. Then the curved page, a "stereotype plate," would be mounted on the press.

The new cold-type, computerized process borrows some features from the offset process, such as the photographing of the final paste-up page and the creation of a full-page negative. The negative is given to the stereotypers, who engrave it on thin metal plates that are mounted directly on the press. [Metal plates were later combined with a coating of hard plastic that was etched to leave the letters and images raised.]

Under the hot-type process, after the paper was printed the printers would start "killing out" the pages of type, tossing the lead slugs into a small metal bin on wheels called the "hellbox." Pied pages of galleys often wound up there, too. Printers, of course, had to learn to read backwards in order to read the lead type.

With the demise of hot type, not only at the Times but at papers and printshops across the nation, two old printers' pranks have died, too.

One is for the Linotype operator to casually hand a hot slug to a backshop visitor, holding it as if it weren't hot at all. In one case, that trick by a young printer [Spinney Spohn in Muncie, Indiana] resulted in such an impression on a young woman visitor that it was the beginning of a romance and a marriage.

The other is the "type lice hunt." The printer would tell a visitor that he was having trouble with type lice. Those are little varmints that infest galleys of type that have been sitting around awhile, usually a few weeks, at least. Sort of like tiny termites that live in lead.

"Look," he would say, pulling out a dusty old galley and spreading the slugs apart in a fan-shaped bend. No type lice. "Well, sometimes you have to bring them to the surface," he would say, pouring some ink-solvent onto the type. "This makes 'em come out for air," he would say. The visitor would lean over and peer down between the separated slugs. The printer would snap them closed, splashing solvent into the visitor's face and, sometimes, eyes. Beginning reporters were favorite victims.


To Learn More:

If you are interested in learning more about the history of printing, the web sites and publications listed below may be of interest. You can also experience the technology first hand by enrolling in a MOAH printing workshop.

Suggested Web Sites Printing, Engraving and Printmaking, Newspapers This site covers a variety of topics related to printing technology at a general level.

The Museum of Printing Artifacts from the printshop and press room. Located in North Andover, MA.

History of Printing Wikipedia article

A History of Printing Bruce Jones

Suggested publications

Materials Used to Write Upon Before the Invention of Printing
Albert Maire ISBN:0846660067

The History of Printing in America
Isaiah Thomas ISBN:0384601766

Bill Balcziak ISBN:0865920699

Adventure and Art: The First One Hundred Years of Printing
Paul Needham
Rutgers University Press ISBN:0813527279

A Day in the Life of a Colonial Printer
Kathy Wilmore ISBN:0823954285

The Computerization of Newspaper Organizations: The Impact of Technology on Organizational Structuring
Nancy M. Carter and John B. Cullen ISBN:0819133795

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This page last updated: September 30, 2011
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