“Typesetting”: Linotype Newspaper Layout, 1884 to 1970s (circa 1960) Salesian Vocational & Technical

“Salesian Vocational and Technical Schools, Italy. How mechanical typesetting works.”


The linotype machine is a “line casting” machine used in printing. Along with letterpress printing, linotype was the industry standard for newspapers, magazines and posters from the late 1800s to the 1960s and 70s, when it was largely replaced by offset lithography printing and computer typesetting. The name of the machine comes from the fact that it produces an entire line of metal type at once, hence a line-o’-type, a significant improvement over the previous industry standard, i.e., manual, letter-by-letter typesetting using a composing stick and drawers of letters.

The Linotype machine operator enters text on a 90-character keyboard. The machine assembles matrices, which are molds for the letter forms, in a line. The assembled line is then cast as a single piece, called a slug, of type metal in a process known as “hot metal” typesetting…

The machine revolutionized typesetting and with it especially newspaper publishing, making it possible for a relatively small number of operators to set type for many pages on a daily basis. Before Mergenthaler’s invention of the Linotype in 1884, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages…


Each matrix contains the letter form for a single character of a font of type; i.e., a particular type design in a particular size. The letter form is engraved into one side of the matrix. For sizes up to 14 points, and in some matrices of size 16 to 24 points, the matrix has two letter forms on it, the positions referred to as the ‘normal’ and ‘auxiliary’ positions. The normal position had the upright (Roman) form of a given character, and on the auxiliary, the slanted (Italic) form of that character would be used, but this could also be the boldface form or even a different font entirely. The machine operator can select which of the two will be cast by operating the auxiliary rail of the assembler, or, when setting entire lines of italics, by using the flap, which was a piece that could be turned under a portion of the first elevator column. This is the origin of the old typesetting terms upper rail for italic and lower rail for Roman characters…

Magazine section

The magazine section is the part of the machine where the matrices are held when not in use, and released as the operator touches keys on the keyboard…


The keyboard has 90 keys. There is no shift key; uppercase letters have keys separate from the lowercase letters. The arrangement of letters corresponds roughly to letter frequency, with the most frequently used letters on the left.

The first two columns of keys are: e, t, a, o, i, n; and s, h, r, d, l, u. A Linotype operator would often deal with a typing error by running the fingers down these two rows, thus filling out the line with the nonsense words etaoin shrdlu. This is known as a run down. It is often quicker to cast a bad slug than to hand-correct the line within the assembler. The slug with the run down is removed once it has been cast, or by the proofreader…

Spaceband box

In justified text, the spaces are not fixed width; they expand to make all lines equal in width. In Linotype machines this is done by spacebands. A spaceband consists of two wedges, one similar in size and shape to a type matrix, one with a long tail. The wide part of the wedge is at the bottom of the tail, so pushing the tail up expands the spaceband…

Casting section

The casting section receives completed lines from the assembler, and uses these to cast the type slugs that are the product of the Linotype machine. The casting section is automatic: once it is activated by the operator sending a completed line by raising the casting lever, a series of cams and levers move the matrices through the casting section and control the sequence of steps that produce the slug.

The casting material is an alloy of lead (85%), antimony (11%), and tin (4%), and produces a one-piece casting slug capable of 300,000 impressions before the casting begins to develop deformities and imperfections, and the type must be cast again…

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