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Connections: Ghosts of the Machine

Wed, 02/05/2020 - 11:50

I am an old enough fogey that I can remember the days when The Star was printed on an old flatbed press on the ground floor of the office building. Everyone on the staff had to physically drag the 1,700-pound rolls of newsprint out of storage in the family barn, from up the lane behind the office. How archaic those rolls seem today — positively Victorian. But I was there to see it.

The paraphernalia of the old press system can still be found here and there. There are the huge, thick slabs of marble — nearly three inches thick — that top the counters and kitchen table in that old family house: They were the printer’s “stones.”

Under a hedge outside the living room windows, oddly enough, is a gigantic, heavy iron beam bearing the name of the printing-press’s manufacturer. (It was hauled out of the barn when the barn was relocated to the Mulford Farm Museum, a couple of years ago, and, I guess, no one has the strength to figure out a better use for it than as mysterious garden ornament.)

In the old days, metal “chases,” which held the wood-and-metal type, were brushed with thick ink. The marble stones got so black they had to be driven over to an expert in Southampton to be cleaned regardless of their girth and weight. The chases are gone, but somewhere around here we still have piles and piles of the old type. It’s pretty neat, actually: not just letters and words, but eagles and stars and business logos and the ornamental curlicues known as dingbats.

This system relied on Linotype machines operated by specialists known as Linotype operators. This was still considered a man’s job: heavy work, hot and dirty. Linotype machines ran on what were called “pigs,” made of an amalgam of metals, including lead, which were heated and cast into type in The Star’s basement. (The old-time newspapering lingo is great, isn’t it? “Pigs” and “dingbats” indeed.)

Sometime around about 1977, the newer, cleaner, photographic typesetting process came in, and by then we were printed in Flanders, rather than on our own ground floor. The photo-typesetting of the 1970s came as quite a revolution: It was clean, light, and swift. Two machines made by a company called Compugraphic took the place of our Linotype machines. Typically, women handled the Compugraphics.

Strong arms and sledgehammers buried the obsolete behemoth of the press carcass below grade level at some point along the way. It’s still there. I don’t think anyone will ever want to dislodge it: There are printing museums elsewhere, and I cannot imagine the iron ever being of enough value to unearth. I like to think of it, centuries hence, being discovered, emerging from the sand as the tide washes over it, like the Statue of Liberty at the end of “Planet of the Apes.”


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