Josna Rege

316. Of Matrices, Magazines, and Melting Pots

In 1980s, blogs and blogging, Media, Stories, United States, Words & phrases, Work on April 17, 2015 at 2:17 am

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910 decorative_letter_M In the 1980s most print shops were getting rid of their letterpress equipment and moving to phototypesetting and offset printing. That meant that people like us who were crazy enough to acquire tons (and I do mean tons) of obsolete equipment could generally get it for next-to-nothing, as long as we were prepared to haul it away ourselves. We made a great leap forward when we acquired our Model 31 Linotype machine, first manufactured by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company around 1937. This machine would enable us to set type using a typewriter-like keyboard, and cast a whole line at a time (hence the name Linotype). 113 We had to set aside a whole room for the new machine, not only because it was large, but because for health and safety reasons we wanted to segregate it from the rest of the press. It had its own melting pot, which melted the lead used to cast the type from the brass molds, or matrices. The matrices were stored in magazines, each one a different typeface or size. Model 31—extremely advanced—could hold four magazines at a time, so that one didn’t have to keep getting up and changing them.

a Linotype matrix

a Linotype matrix

Of course, neither matrix nor magazine are terms unique to letterpress printing. One of the definitions of matrix is a metal mold for casting type. More generally, it is a mold in which something, such as metal type or a phonograph record, is cast or shaped; and more generally still, an environment, medium, or material in which something develops, deriving ultimately from the Latin and Indo-European māter, mātr, or mother.

matrix magazine (trapezoid on left)

matrix magazine (trapezoid on left)

Striking a key of the keyboard released a matrix from the magazine in which it was stored, dropping down into a line until the whole line was ready to be cast into a single slug. Magazine is a word that derives from the Arabic, maḵzin, maḵzan ‘storehouse’, from ḵazana ‘store up’ (thence the words magazine (French) and magazzino (Italian). The original word meant storehouse, and it was not until the 18th century that it began to be used to refer to both “a periodical publication containing articles and illustrations, typically covering a particular subject or area of interest” and “a chamber for holding a supply of cartridges to be fed automatically to the breech of a gun” (Oxford Dictionaries).

And oh, the melting pot. It was rather nasty. We were careful with it because of the danger of lead poisoning, trying not to knock it over and to touch it only with gloves or long-handled tongs. Although one could set a line of type much faster on the Linotype than by hand, in the end we didn’t find ourselves having much call for it in our day-to-day job printing. But it was a strange and wonderful machine.

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Chronological Table of Contents

atoz [2015] - BANNER - 910

  1. […] Of Matrices, Magazines, and Melting Pots (G) […]

  2. My dad would have been familiar with the term matrix, being a moulder in the 1930s.
    It is interesting where words originate and change meaning over time. The word ‘magazine’ also means the storage area for ammunition – either a building or the piece that holds multiple bullets in a gun.

  3. You are such a storehouse of knowledge. Printing and word history are very interesting. It is amazing to read about the changes in the industry. Everything has happened so quickly.

    • Thank you, Mary. Yes, it’s hard to believe that such a short time ago we were typesetting on that massive contraption and today I can do it in a fraction of the time on my little laptop. Of course the process isn’t the same, and neither is the product. And then there’s the sad reality that newspapers–the main users of Linotype machines–are going out of business because so many people are getting their news online.

  4. Looks amazing. My mother and aunt worked at a cousins printing shop in the 1930/1940s when they set the newspaper with such a machine. I think. They didn’t set type but they said the man that did was a little strange and this was usual because of the lead in the type. Glad it didn’t get you.

    • The lead poisoning is a serious matter. We were meticulous about washing and about keeping the lead type only in certain rooms o the shop. We went for lead tests together and were relieved to find that our blood levels were not elevated. Still what with the inks and the solvents used to clean the presses (for which there are “green” alternatives nowadays), it was a dirty business. Sad o think of all those old typesetter with neurological damage.

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