Amusements & Useful Devices from K. A. Wisniewski
Despite having been born and raised in Baltimore, it’s funny that I don’t remember ever visiting the Baltimore Museum of Industry, not on a Saturday family outing nor on some school trip. It is fine space–a hidden gem around Harborplace–with much potential. On April 19, I joined about two dozen members of the American Printing History Association for a private tour of the museum–and especially the 1900 print shop it maintains.
Our tour began with a brief history of the city, tracing the rise of Baltimore town as a port, granary, and site of a major canning industry. (Fittingly the museum is housed in an old oyster cannery.) John, our tour guide, explained canning process the industrialization of the city during this era and showed us a few of the daily operations and working engines and devices in the BMI’s nineteenth-century machinist’s workshop.
We just happened to visit during the opening weeks of a new exhibition entitled, “Making Music: The Banjo in Baltimore & Beyond.” The exhibit was small and understated, but probably offered quite an impressive display for musicians and musicologists. But our interest was perhaps the most famous and trafficked (and certainly the most impressive area) of the museum: the printing press.
The Linotype sped up printing production by mechanizing the process of setting type that is printed for newspapers and books. Before Mergenthaler’s invention, typesetting was a time-consuming process that was done by hand and was the major bottleneck in the production of printing. The Linotype casts an entire line of type at one time (hence the name “Line o’ Type”). Individual letters or symbols are typed on a keyboard and engraved onto one side of a metal matrix. Once a line is completed, it is sent to another machine to cast them together as a single piece.
The machine was invented Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German-born inventor, who began his career as a watch-maker and emigrated to Baltimore in 1872. His first working machine was put into service at the New York Tribune in 1886, and it allowed newspapers to quickly expand editions beyond the usual eight-page issue. While other versions of the machine followed, this technology would be the technology for printing until the emergence of photo typesetting in the 1950s. Now obsolete, by the 1970s, linotype machines were getting scrapped.
The single line of type after its been cast. I typed my name.
Luckily, the BMI has not only preserved it, but kept it in operation, thanks to volunteer Ray Loomis, who was present for our visit and told me that he’d been working on such a machine since he was a teenager. He’s now in his 80s.
Mr. Loomis not only explained how it worked, but also allowed a few of us to use it. I was immediately impressed both by how complicated the machinery itself operated but how simple (and involved) the process from start to finish was. I have included several photos below of the visit, but photos here don’t do justice to the efforts taken to preserve the 1936 linotype and keep it operational, nor can they offer the feel of the machine. I was struck by the sensitivity of the keyboard–each stroke requires a hard, quick press (more than tap and a quick hit, otherwise the type would get stuck in the machine. More impressively for me, when something went wrong with the machine, operators at larger presses and operations, like the Baltimore Sun, had a light switch beside them in such a time. One merely needed to flip a switch and a red light would turn on above their machine. In a matter of seconds, a technician would stop by and make the necessary adjustments to continue. Talk about a great IT Help system! I hope you enjoy the photos below:
The printing press was actually the focus of a segment of CSPAN’s American History in 2012 and the Chesapeake Chapter of the APHA also recently posted an article on our visit to their blog.