A century after Ottmar Mergenthaler invented the Linotype, it seems easy to relegate the machine to history’s landfills. Or to Coolin.
Stacked inside storage units in this village at Priest Lake, Idaho, Merle Langley has 10 million Linotype matrices - small brass molds, each bearing an alphabetical letter. Used in the Linotypes and similar type-setting machines of different brands, these matrices formed strips of hot lead type once the benchmark of the printing industry.
Langley’s business, 67-year-old Marlboro Mats Inc., offers perhaps the world’s largest selection of used matrices. But in an age of computer typesetting, business is not brisk.
However, “there are still people all over the world using hot type,” Langley says, citing countries such as Chile, Peru, Columbia, Haiti, Australia and New Zealand, where this printing process remains important. “I sent out 1,900 mailings this year. I get more money from mailings than I do from trade journals and catalogs put together.”
Before Mergenthaler’s invention in 1886, printing methods had changed little from when Johannes Gutenberg converted a wine press into a printing press in 1440 - and helped push Europe into the Protestant Reformation.
For printing during that period, a mix of lead, tin and antimony was smelted, then poured into matrices to form lettered blocks. Renaissance printers painstakingly arranged letters by hand, coated them with ink, then stamped them on paper.
The Linotype - which Thomas Edison once called “the eighth wonder of the world” - changed all that. Typists at special keyboards could quickly arrange letters in lead blocks as wide as a newspaper page.
“The machine revolutionized the educational system around the world,” Langley said, noting that while Gutenberg’s press increased the availability of books, Mergenthaler made them affordable to the masses.
Langley joined Marlboro Mats in 1960, when it was still run by founder William Plank in Marlboro, NY. There then were hundreds of such firms around the country. Publishing houses, newspapers and magazines depended on a steady supply of soft brass matrices, which wore out during heavy use. Langley purchased the business in 1972 with a partner, then moved it to Coolin in 1986.
“Since I have a mail-order business, as long as the UPS man comes to the door I can sell from anywhere I want,” said Langley, who came to North Idaho partly to escape New York state taxes, and partly as a lifestyle choice.
Though by the mid-1960s, Linotypes’ demise seemed irreversible, Langley says there are still printing tasks, such as fine book covers and gold award lettering, which Linotypes or another brand, Ludlows, do better.
Still, Langley says, “When I saw the quality printing coming out of the computer, I knew we were in trouble.”
Randy Laird, now the Packaging Center superintendent for The Spokesman-Review, was an apprentice Linotype operator when he joined the paper in 1969. The newspaper converted from hot metal to “cold type” letterpress printing in the mid-1970s, then to off-set printing in 1981.
Laird was surprised to learn about Marlboro. “He does what? I didn’t think anybody used hot type anymore.”
So how has Marlboro Mats survived?
As one of only three matrice dealers left in North America, it has developed a niche among amateur or hobby printers, as well as a number of small newspapers around the country, and larger operations in Central and South America.
For Langley, the prices for matrice fonts depend on the availability and customer. He sold one for $200 one year and more than $600 the next. Shipping costs for the heavy brass can be high - but Langley and his wife, Janet, love to travel.
“I told a customer I could save him $66 a font if I brought it with me,” he said. “So it paid for my trip to New Zealand.”
In the U.S., a few weekly newspapers still rely on Linotypes.
For 25 years, Doris Thomas has operated a 1937 machine at the Westminster Herald, a 5,000 circulation weekly newspaper near Los Angeles. Her husband, Lloyd, is publisher.
“I’ve got an order of matrices out (to Marlboro) right now,” said Lloyd, whose paper may be the last in California to use Linotypes.
“We like a self-controlled plant. And it’s paid for,” Thomas said. “If we were going to put in an off-set plant, you’re looking at a $10 million investment.”
Despite Merle Langley’s emotional attachment to the Linotype era, he’s also a realist. He said Marlboro Mats sold more than $150,000 worth of matrices and machine parts a year in the early 1980s, but by 1996, orders had dropped by two-thirds.
In Coolin, Marlboro employee Sandy Rupp sorts through the matrices Langley buys from defunct printing operations, carefully replacing damaged or missing brass as she pieces together entire fonts. Rupp also is an amateur printer, with three hand presses at home.
She knows that the last new matrice manufacturer closed last year in England. Sooner or later, she says, nobody will need even the used matrices which Marlboro now ships to far corners of the globe. “When they don’t, then we’re out of business,” Rupp said. “Then we’re a museum.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
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