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Linotype lessons

My experiences with a big link in the printing technology chain

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You probably would never call WORLD News Group a “high-tech” enterprise. But whatever technology we’ve needed along the way in our four decades of operation has always seemed to show up right on time—and sometimes provided by a sovereign God almost as if it had been designed just for us.

In the old, old days, WORLD’s predecessor, The Presbyterian Journal, used a Linotype machine to print each issue. I remember the first time I saw a Linotype machine operate. As I watched, I had no idea how big the gaps had been between this elegant publishing tool and the one that came before it.

For years and years (like 500 years!), gifted people—and a lot of not-so-gifted people—had been trying to improve on the advances typically attributed to Johannes Gutenberg. A German inventor and goldsmith, Gutenberg had the genius to merge the advantages of movable type with the efficiency of a winepress.

That next long wait stretched on endlessly until 1884 when Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German watchmaker who had moved to Baltimore, opened the door to a ­conceptually different approach to typesetting. Instead of manually gathering individual pieces of lead type, Mergenthaler’s machine (about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle) allowed the operator to use a keyboard to ­assemble tiny brass molds of all the letters, numbers, and other desired characters. All this, and much more, is positioned accurately in front of a pot of molten lead which is sprayed into the brass molds. The result: a line of type, which is ejected and added to the column or page for which it is intended.

Early on, thousands of these radical new machines found their ways into printing plants around the world. The New York Times soon had 90 of these wonder machines at work. The scientist Thomas Edison called the Linotype the Eighth Wonder of the World. An entire feature-length film was produced just 10 years ago, detailing the machine’s remarkable capabilities. Mergenthaler’s stated goal while developing his machine was to create a tool for publishers that would never be improved on and would never wear out.

You can decide just how close Mergenthaler came to reaching those targets—at least in my personal circumstances—when I report to you my decision to buy my own Linotype as a tool for earning my way through ­college. Even in the late 1950s, a brand-new Linotype sold for $20,000—but I found one of those “never-wear-out-never-improved-on” machines in A-1 condition for just $2,000.

The durability of the Linotype, however, I was soon to discover quite sadly, had its limits. Even someone who loves the machine cannot drop it carelessly down a steep basement stairway during installation. My Linotype would run again, but never with the smooth efficiency of its—and my—youth.

But if the trauma of dropping and virtually destroying my prize typesetter forced me to step back and reflect on God’s purpose in my life, would that not be much to the good? From the earliest church until the 1400s, the Word was spread by quill and parchment—suggesting even to Time magazine’s editors that Gutenberg was “Man of the Millennium.” From Gutenberg until Mergenthaler’s typesetter in 1884, the world’s first successful mechanical composer made every printed page everywhere dramatically less costly to produce.

But none of that could match what was still to come. The arrival in the 1980s of the personal computer, Apple’s Macintosh, and digital publishing in general are all-powerful indicators that God isn’t done yet in His design of incredible tools to spread His Word.

Joel Belz

Joel Belz (1941–2024) was WORLD’s founder and a regular contributor of commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. He served as editor, publisher, and CEO for more than three decades at WORLD and was the author of Consider These Things. Visit WORLD’s memorial tribute page.


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