Yesterday's Technology . . . Today!

Bridlington Chronicle

MY EAGLE CLUB DIARY has the following note for Monday, 8th September, 1952: "Started work at 8. Did metal for Linotype. 12-1 dinner. Left at 4.30." On Thursday the 11th: "After dinner went to sorting office." I remember why that was noted. The papers sent by post were rolled up, wrapped and addressed in the office, but I had to trundle them to the sorting office. On a station-type wheelbarrow with iron wheels. What a racket! I was sure my mother could hear me back at home on the other side of town! When a postman saw me stuffing them into the postbox near the post office door, he showed me round the back to the sorting office.

But then, I was a grammar school lad, with a smattering of German, Latin, algebra, biology and English Literature. I soon found out how little I knew of the ways of the world when I was asked to "mek us some tea, lad." There was a disgusting sink in one corner where the machine men washed their rollers with paraffin which had a cold tap. I held the kettle under there as though I would be poisoned. And the teapot! And the mugs! Good grief! My mother would have thrown a wobbly if she'd seen them. Anyway we all survived. But it's taken me until nearly retirement to have a cup of my tea drunk without comment.

I remember on one occasion I was keying away merrily, when my tutor, Neil Jemison, watched me. He had a small oilcan in his hand which he used to flush out muck from various places on the Intertype. As he passed the front of my machine, he squirted the contents of the can on to the gas flames at the throat of the metal pot. Whoosh! Up went a sheet of flame, and back went my chair, throwing me on to the floor.

Another trick for the concentrating and unwary operator: Just as the ejector is about to push out the slug, the way is clear for the perpetrator to whack the top of the level sharply. The ejector moves forward much more quickly than usual and the slug comes onto the delivery slide like a rocket, with an accompanying clatter.

One operator I knew had an evening job in a bar, leaving him short of sleep. During the afternoon when his eyelids were heavy, he would rest the base of his hands onto the bottom of the keyboard, keeping his fingers off the keys. He'd pretend to be studying the copy. He'd do this once or twice then carry on working. But occasionally he'd try it once too often. His eyelids would close, and he'd nod off. After a second, his fingers would lower, contact the keys and in a second all manner of matrices would clatter into the assembler, waking him up with a start! It became so frequent that we other operators would pass the word along the line and we'd watch him. Somehow nobody seemed to care.

One Thursday a local newsagent rang up and asked for extra copies of the paper. This was unheard of. Anyway, I was sent round with another dozen and he greeted me with a smile. "Have you seen it, lad?" I didn't know what he was talking about. So he showed me the advert inside. And there it was: "Boys' Summer Shirts." But without the "r" in the last word!

I was deferred from National Service until my five years' apprenticeship was complete. For a short while I attended evening classes for Linotype Mechanics. This meant an evening train ride to Hull, where I visited the Hull Daily Mail building to get my hands on screwdrivers and such. I was awarded a micrometer at the end of my "course," and it still lurks in my "slum." (I picked up this word when at Aylesbury. All the London overspill men used the term for that special place everyone has where all the bits and pieces, odds and sods, "things that'll come in handy," are kept). I have three slums in my cabinet alongside my PC.

Mechanics did not come easy. I am not naturally gifted with machines and how they work. I can work them well. I can drive but am useless when I lift the bonnet. I was the same on the Linos. I could keep them punching out line after line with no difficulty, but when they stopped I struggled. I reckoned I learned sufficiently of the day-to-day maintenance and upkeep of the Linotype and was eventually skilled enough to take out a quadder, clean it and replace it correctly. The major pieces of the machine though, they were beyond me.

Not only did I "do" the metal for the Linotype on my first day, but probably every Monday for the next two years. One day the metal pot downstairs had been filled with last week's metal, the gas burner lit, and left to do its job. After a while I came downstairs only to find that the tap hadn't been closed properly the last time it was used, and molten lead had run across the floor like water, finding indentations in the concrete.

All those operators who have bent liners because they forgot to change the ejector blade have my sympathy. I bent one once and incurred the huge wrath of the foreman. I was left in no doubt what type of idiot I was. We managed to replace the liner, and I sent the next line away. Whoops! Who'd forgotten to change the ejector blade? Was it me or him? Another liner gone.

I dread to think how much running those Linotypes cost. Bent matrices, battered spacebands. The number of hours spent on the step at the back clearing the disser, cleaning up after a splash, faffing about with ingots of metal, and cleaning spacebands. Of all the jobs to do, well that was the worst. Loose graphite all over, three or four operators all using the same piece of plywood covered in that fine black powder. It got up your nose, up your sleeves, all over the front of your overall. And the management had to allow half an hour for the job. So it was used as a good skive. Then, of course, there was "cleaning the plunger," another daily routine. And "scraping the well." I can't believe how much I remember!

And what about washing mats? Matrices, of course. We used an old enamel bowl which had definitely seen better days, half full of petrol. We put the mats in and swilled them round. Picked a matrix up and rubbed it between the fingers until the muck came away. Repeat. Ad infinitum it seemed. I don't think anyone smoked when that job was being done, but it wouldn't surprise me if they did. Nowadays I reckon Health & Safety would have had that stopped.

I have copies of the last issue of the Bridlington Chronicle and two sets of copper blocks used for printing the masthead. When we stopped producing the newspaper, we chucked everyone out of the windows into a yard below, where it was taken away for scrap. When I took this photo my back is against a Columbian press, the one with an eagle on top.

And here's a question for all visitors to the site. Could a Linotype be built from scratch today? The books I have show an extremely complex machine, with a huge lump of unsophisticated cast iron supporting the most elegantly engineered steel components. I honestly don't think any top-rate engineer, even with unlimited time, equipment and funds at his disposal, would be able to build one. I know there are examples still working out there, but to build one from scatch? I don't think it can be done. If it actually could, at what price?

Copyright © Dave Hughes 2000-2015. All rights reserved.