Farewell – ETAOIN SHRDLU

The entire process of breaking a story and getting it to print is just bonkers. It’s hard to fathom making such deadlines today, let alone 40 years ago.

Over the July 4th weekend of 1978, the New York Times switched from a Linotype typesetting process to phototypesetting (or cold-typesetting). Filmmakers Carl Schlesinger and David Loeb Weiss were there to document the end of an era for the historic paper. Amidst a still-looming print deadline, and rigid schedule to switch to an entirely modern process the next day — the entire process feels like total anarchy. With minutes to spare, they make the deadline.

As for the mystical etaoin shrdlu, it’s a non-sensical phrase generated by the typesetter, running their fingers vertically along the Lintotype keys. It was used as a signal to editors that a known mistake was made by the operator. Because operations had to move quickly, it was common to see etaoin shrdlu make it into products such as this one from a 1903 edition of The New York Times.

From the film’s description:

A film created by Carl Schlesinger and David Loeb Weiss documenting the last day of hot metal typesetting at The New York Times. This film shows the entire newspaper production process from hot-metal typesetting to creating stereo moulds to high-speed press operation. At the end of the film, the new typesetting and photographic production process is shown in contrast to the old ways.

There are interviews with workers at NYT that are for and against the new technology. In fact, one typesetter is retiring on this final day as he does not want to learn the new process and technology.

This is the first time the film has ever been available in HD from the original 16mm master film.

See more printing, journalism, and typographic-related films at: printingfilms.com

I have so much respect for these hot metal typesetters, editors, and journalists. This was a tough-as-nails job. They crafted an entire process around the machine’s unforgiving mechanical problems to ensure a daily paper was possible.

It’s really something to behold. The Linotype was a marvelous (and very dangerous machine) feat of mechanical engineering but by the late 1970’s it was time to say goodbye as the digital age was upon us. We’ve come a long way.

Further Reading

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