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Johnny Vardeman: Old Linotype was paper’s ‘modern’ marvel
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

The Times is presenting a series of podcasts in observance of Hall County’s 200th anniversary.

The current podcast is about the history of The Times newspaper itself.

It was noted that, although there have been some close calls, the newspaper never has missed an edition. There was a period between the newspaper’s founding in 1947 until 1981 that there was no Saturday edition, but after that the paper was printed every day of the week.

Only a few months after what was then the Gainesville Daily Times moved into the Press-Radio Center on West Spring Street, fire heavily damaged the production department. However, other printers in town came to the rescue to get the paper out.

An 1885 fire destroyed a two-story building in downtown Gainesville housing the Gainesville Eagle, predecessor to The Times, and the Southron, another weekly paper. In 28-degree weather with a stiff breeze blowing, firefighters couldn’t save the two newspapers and three stores. That spelled the end of the Southron, which already was in debt, but the Eagle somehow flew on schedule the next week.

In more modern times, when electric power went off because of an ice storm, the Daily Times’s newsroom prepared a paper using an old hand-cranked mimeograph machine. Issues came off the machine, but it was never delivered because the power came back on, allowing the press and all the other equipment to run.

Another time when weather interrupted power, pages of The Times already prepared were carried to Athens, which had not lost power, to be printed.

There have been other days or nights when mechanical problems put the paper’s fate in doubt for the day, but eventually they were overcome, and the paper came out, while it may have been late. Snow days, too, have caused the paper to be late and perhaps not delivered at all in some areas.

Another question on the podcast was about the “old days” when newspapers were printed using the hot metal process. If any use that method today, they are a rare breed. Dating back further than The Times, weekly newspapers in the area had to “handset” their type. That means compositors, those who put the paper together, had to arrange each letter on a “stick” to form a letter, a word, a sentence, finally a paragraph. Obviously this was slow, cumbersome and mistake prone.

Oldtime editors such as Jim Davidson of the Cleveland Courier, Uncle Jack Hilton of the Banks County Journal or W.B. Townsend of the Dahlonega Nugget were among those who labored into the wee hours to get all that tedious work done.

Linotype machines put an end to that chore. They would set a line of type with a few strokes of a keyboard. The Linotype was a Rube-Goldberg type of machine that was fascinating to watch, cantankerous to operate, but a marvelous melody of moving parts.

Wikipedia on the internet gives a detailed explanation, with illustrations, of how it worked. The short version is that when the operator struck a key on the keyboard, a matrice containing a letter or character would start a line of type. When the line was complete, molten lead would be squirted against it to form a line. The matrices then would be returned to a magazine to be used again.

Nine lines of type a minute was considered adequate, but in today’s technology that would be akin to a turtle chasing a race horse.

When all the lines fell into place for a story, all the stories for a page would be assembled in a chase, a metal frame the size of a page. This would be placed on the press to be inked and “pressed” against the newsprint to produce the newspaper. Later presses required another step, making a “mat” of the completed page, and it would be used to make a molten metal cylindrical plate that would be inked and pressed into the newsprint. That speeded up the process, even though the extra step was required.

Handset type wasn’t entirely a thing of the past. Larger headlines and some type for advertising still had to be set by hand with the letters formed in a “stick” just like the old days.

When offset printing arrived, it eliminated the hot metal and a lot of the other clunky machinery required. Compositors would “paste up” pages with stories and photographs from a photographic process. The composing room, as it was named, eventually disappeared, and from the newsroom, reporters and editors now can compose the pages on their computers, punch a button and make a plate for the press.

It’s even more sophisticated than that, but today’s newspaper people are a lot more skilled in technology than those of just a few years ago.

Today’s newsrooms are quiet compared to those of the past when there were the constant clatter of manual typewriters and the chatter of teletype machines spitting out on paper news from around the world. Those machines would sound bells when breaking news broke out – three bells for an urgent story, five for a bulletin and 10 for a flash, which was heard when President Kennedy was assassinated.

Watch for more local history next week.


Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. whose column appears Sundays; e-mail.

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