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). 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.
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.
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.