Metal Type: Home | Library | Forum | Free Ads | Store

The Fastest Linotype Operator

Started by Mechanic, October 14, 2010, 12:46:22 AM

Previous topic - Next topic

0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic.

Printle: A Printing Word Game from Metal Type


I wonder when the following story was published in 1900, how many of the Detroit Free Press readers would have taken the time to wade through a story that would appear to be of interest only to members of the printing industry.  The story is full of industry jargon that few laymen would under stand. The editor did point out that the column width of the Detroit Free Press was 22ems. At the end of the story I have included a URL for The Scientific American which includes an 1890 review of the Linotype

QuoteDetroit Free Press April 1900

Few people who take up a newspaper to read give any thought to the amount of labour required to produce it, and fewer still have any conception whatever of the wonderful machinery that is employed in producing the modern newspaper. One of the most wonderful pieces of mechanism that enters into the production of a big metropolitan large paper like the "Free Press" is the marvelous Mergenthaler linotype. It is a comparatively recent invention that is, in its perfected form. It is the machine that sets the type.

In the days of hand composition a printer who could set and correct 1000 ems an hour (there are 22 ems in this line.-Ed. W.P.)  was considered a fair workman, and the very few who doubled that speed were looked upon by their fellow-craftsmen as wonders. When the linotype machine was introduced various schemes were suggested such as the use of logotypes and rearrangement of cases by which to in crease the speed of hand compositors, so as to compete with the machine, but to no avail. The greatest output at first claimed by the promoters of the new invention was 4000 ems an hour, and the general belief was that the average product would not exceed half that amount. Now, however, with the perfection of mechanical details in the machine, and the development of expert operators, an average of 5000 ems an hour excites no more comment than did 1000 ems an hour by hand, and, except for display type, the services of the hand compositor in the near future will be entirely dispensed with.

All the great newspapers of the country use Mergenthaler's linotype machines, and if anyone has not seen the "silent talkers" he can do so by applying at the business office of any paper where they are in use.

The machine has a keyboard in front of it, like the keyboard of a typewriter, which ,the operator touches like a piano player bringing forth soft notes.  The most expert operator in the world, William H. Stubbs, is now employed on the Baltimore "Sun," and his average: "off the hook," deducting heads, leads, and rules, is 8000 ems an hour. The "Sun" is one of the most particular papers in the country as to accuracy and mechanical appearance, and preserves its old form of hand-set days to a greater extent than any other machine-set daily. Small capitals, italics, diphthongs, and accents are used, no divisions are allowed on silent letters, and for an out or doublet the whole paragraph must be overrun. With these handicaps to fast work, it will be conceded that the daily performance of this operator is nothing short of marvelous.

On October. 3, in the Philadelphia "Times" office, Mr. Stubbs engaged in a contest with William, Duffy. of the Philadelphia "Inquirer." In this contest Stubbs not only defeated Duffy easily, but he beat all records for speed on the linotype. The best previous record was by an operator in St. Louis some years ago, who set an average of 10,800 ems per hour. Stubbs averaged 12,020 ems an. hour. Duffy's average was 10,200 ems an hour.The trial of speed between Stubbs and Duffy, who is considered the fastest operator in Philadelphia, was for a purse of 700 dollars.

The contest began at eleven o'clock in the morning, and was continued for seven hours, but at five: o'clock, upon receipt of one of his proofs with a great many errors in it, Duffy threw up the sponge and quit, being convinced that he had no possible show of winning. The type used was No. 2 nonpareil, 27 ems to the line, and their machines ran at a speed of nine and a quarter lines a minute. Stubbs worked five hours and thirty three minutes and Duffy five hours and twenty-one minutes. Stubbs set a total of. 2471 lines, or 66,717 ems of corrected' matter, which means that for, every mistake, no matter how slight, the whole line where the mistake occurred had to be reset. Duffy set 2038 lines, or 55,026 ems. The, amount of corrected matter set up by Stubbs in the trifle over five and one-half hours equaled about ten "and one-half columns of solid reading matter in the "Free' Press," or with space for the usual heads and sub-heads, spaces, dashes, leads, and so on, Stubbs's matter would fill nearly, if not quite, two pages of reading matter in the "Free Press." His performance is looked upon as little short of marvelous by the operators. Both men started off strong.

The first touch on the machine made by Stubbs was an error, but even then he beat Duffy finishing the first line, and thereafter was never in the least danger of being headed. After an hour and a half's work Stubbs was half a column in the lead, and increased it steadily until the end. Stubbs lost only about 150 lines because of mistakes, which indicated wonderfully perfect work for such fast composition. He did not attempt to "spurt" until near the end, but when he did he kept constantly ahead of the machine, and was averaging a trifle over nine lines a minute, with the ma chine at top speed only going nine and one-quarter lines. a minute. If one were to consider the performance in detail, one would find that in the 2471 lines set there were 17,297 words, averaging seven words to tile line, seven letters to the word, or a total of 121,079 letters. Add to this the 2471 motions in throwing up the lines to be cast and the 14,286 touches on the keyboard to insert the necessary spaces, and it shows a total of 138.376 motions, or an average of about seven a second. To keep this record up for five hours and thirty-three minutes, as did Mr. Stubbs, would probably sprout corns on the fingers of one less deft in the manipulation of the key board.

The feature of Stubbs's work is his ability to manipulate the keyboard of his machine without looking at it, a quality possessed by but few linotype operators. His friends on the Baltimore "Sun" are ready to back him against all comers for not less then 1000 dollars a side in a seven hour con test. He is a young man. and has not been working on the linotype for many years. When a mere boy he tried to secure a place on a Cleveland (Ohio) paper to learn the linotype work, but failed.. He finally succeeded in getting a position on a small paper, but at first was slow, and it was said. he would never make an expert. Once well started, however, his progress was rapid. As he can play the key board more rapidly than the machine can cast the lines, it seems doubtful if anyone can possibly beat him. The linotype can set anywhere from four to eight times as much matter as an ordinary hand compositor.

Wonderful stories are told of old-time compositors, but extremely few of the hundreds of thousands of them ever reached the goal for which so many aimed-setting 2000 ems an hour. An operator on the linotype who can set 8000 an hour is considered very fast, but Stubbs can "hit it up" to 14,000 an hour. He has done this for several hours. An ordinary operator can set a "Free Press" column in an hour or an hour and a quarter. 'It requires six hours or more to set it by hand. Stubbs has been presented with a gold medal by the Baltimore "Sun." He has written to a friend in Detroit that he will be there next June, and may give an exhibition of his wonderful skill in the composing-room of the "Free Press."

Scientific American 9 aug 1890

George Finn (Mechanic)
Gold Coast


When my dad sit me down and taught me to run his 2 mag Blue Streak, he had me read my grand-dads copy of 'Stubbs Manual'.  I wish I knew what happened to that book.

Dan Williams

There is alot of industrial history that has special significance. These handset and machine set competitions are hugely relevant and interesting. Perhaps someday the ivory towers will take notice. A few thoughts I have regarding the article are 1. Contrast the old Sun's preoccupation with typographic detail versus graphic presentation in current media, both print and internet. 2. Handset competition was popular and well pubicized in the Industrial Age; I gather that its demise resulted from womens domination and not necessarily by mechanization. 3. Machine competitions don't appear to have gained steam and werent a continual side show during the era of mechanized typesetting. I suspect the Great Depression may have something to do with that. On the old Houston Press, My grandad Ellis Williams was specifically instructed by Chapel  to not overproduce. There were too many others waiting to substitute in. 4. I have always suspected that production issues were never really the central goal of automation. A good industrial engineer probably could have hiked Lino production in any plant by 50%. I think the real issues were control of the process and moving production closer to the client. Overhead costs were a factor. But I digress.
Great post.

Quick Reply

Please leave this box empty:
Type the letters shown in the picture
Listen to the letters / Request another image

Type the letters shown in the picture:

Shortcuts: ALT+S post or ALT+P preview

Printers' Tales - Over 30 stories from the pre-digital age. Buy now on Amazon/Apple Books

☛ Don't miss our illustrated newsletters. Click here to see examples and subscribe. ☚