Rabbit Redux: From hot metal to cold type

From hot metal to cold type to online, newspapers have undergone two revolutions since the Cold War.

The news used to come hot off the press, the words set on stone.

It was a noisy business.

Linotype machine
Linotype machine

Typesetters would key the words into towering Linotype machines, which cast them into lines of lead or “hot metal” type.  The columns of type were then made into pages by a stonehand, or compositor, on a “stone bed”, which was a sheet of precision-ground flat steel.

The completed page was then put on a mangle, a flat-bed machine with rollers, which would roll out a page proof for the sub-editor to check.

The newspaper case room, with its Linotype machines and stone beds, could be an inferno with the clatter of machinery and the noxious fumes of lead. The typesetters typed fast and furious, the stonehands hammered type into bed, the page proofs arrived sticky with printer’s ink, and it was impossible to escape the whiff of lead.

The racket ended when phototypesetters replaced the Linotype machines and stone beds. Typesetting began to be done on desktops. The noisy caserooms  gave way to cool, air-conditioned newsrooms where sub-editors could do the typesetting themselves.

I was reminded of the old days while reading John Updike’s classic Rabbit Redux.

Updike lovers will recall his hero, Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, once worked for a newspaper. He was a Linotype operator in his home town, Brewer.

The novel opens with Harry and his father, “Pop” Earl Angstrom, also a printer, ending their shift at Verity Press and having a drink at a bar. It is the late 1960s. The television in the bar is showing a rocket launch. Nixon is president. The blacks have just won their civil rights. But Harry’s neighbours aren’t too happy when a black Vietnam veteran, Skeeter, moves into his house along with a teen dropout, Jill, after his wife, Janice, leaves him and goes to live with her mother, Ma Springer.

The upheaval in Harry’s life is followed by a shakeup at the newspaper office. Harry is let go by his employers. His boss, Pajasek, tells him they are switching to offset printing and don’t need a Linotype operator like him.

Later, his father tells him he asked the boss to fire him instead and let Harry stay. But the boss pointed out he was due to retire soon anyway while his son had years to go.

Things don’t turn out too badly for Harry. He and his wife make up at the end of this novel. And in the sequel, Rabbit Is Rich, we will see him as the owner of Springer Motors, his late father-in-law’s Toyota agency.

But things slide before they look up. Harry the Linotype operator is thrown out of work in the switch to offset printing.

Pajasek, his boss, tells him what a difference the new technology will make to the newspaper:

Offset, you operate all from film, bypass hot metal entirely. Go to a cathode ray tube, Christ, it delivers two thousand lines a minute, that’s the whole Vat in seven minutes.

Now, more than 40 years later, all that is old hat. Newspapers online need new skills. The dead-tree version still looks the same, but looks don’t tell the story.

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