His type of line

Burns keeps Linotypes clacking across U.S.

Burns keeps Linotypes clacking across U.S.

January 25, 2004|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

Until the mid- to late 1970s, the cacophony of Linotype machines could be heard clacking away in newspaper composing rooms across the world, but the days of "hot metal" have long given way to the quiet rhythm of computers.

The demise of the Linotype machine had a corresponding demise in the number of people who kept them running.

Patrick Burns, 62, of Mercersburg, said he believes he is one of two working Linotype machinists left in the country. His only colleague is in Tennessee, he said.

Linotype machines were invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German clockmaker who came to Baltimore in the 1870s. He demonstrated his first successful machine at the New York Herald Tribune and the newspaper industry latched onto the new technology overnight. The days of setting type by hand were over.


Thomas Edison called the Linotype machine the "Eighth Wonder of the World," Burns said. "They allowed newspapers to get bigger and put out more editions," he said.

Burns grew up around the Linotype industry. His grandfather, William M. Knecht, made castings in his foundry in Somerset County, Pa., for Mergenthaler's original factory in Baltimore. In 1901, the factory moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. It produced about 1,000 Linotype machines per year in its heyday.

Burns worked for the factory from 1964 to 1966, installing machines for customers.

Burns grew up in Baltimore and knew from a young age that he wanted to be a printer. He graduated in 1959 from Merganthaler Vocational Technical High School in Baltimore. The school specialized in the printing trade. One of his teachers was Robert P. Merganthaler, a great nephew of the inventor. The school had six Linotype machines, which students learned how to rebuild and operate.

Burns did his apprenticeship in a typesetting house. He later worked as a machinist for the Baltimore News American, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post, Washington Star and Washington Daily News.

"In those days if you had an ITU card, you could walk into any newspaper and get a job," he said. "That's why they were called journeymen printers, because they journeyed around to different jobs."

The machines are called Linotype because that's what they produce - a line of type cast in a molten metal alloy from a pot kept at 535 degrees. When each galley is filled with type, it's put into a heavy metal frame called a chase. The process continues until a full image or page fills the chase. In newspaper publishing, a mat then is pressed onto the finished page, from which a metal alloy plate is cast and put onto the press.

Linotype machines have around 35,000 parts, Burns said.

"Forget about the space shuttle. The Linotype machine and the Redding Full Fashion Knitting Machine, which made silk stockings, are the two most complicated machines ever invented," Burns said.

Keyboards on Linotype machines are different from those on typewriters and computers. A bank of black keys on the left hold lower-case letters with the most often used - E-T-A-O-I-N - running top to bottom on the extreme left. The bank of middle keys, spaces and punctuation marks, are blue. Upper-case keys on the right bank are white.

The machines were operated by members of the International Typographical Union. It took six years of apprenticeship to get a union card and become a journeyman printer.

Most of the machines still in use are in small commercial print shops, in book-binding shops and in factories that make wooden pencils. Burns said most of his customers are small print shops in the New York City area.

"He's amazing on these things," said David Roselle, owner of Clayton Press, a small print shop in Asbury Park, N.J. The machine that Burns keeps running for Roselle was built in 1914.

"We got it from the Asbury Park Press newspaper in 1950," Roselle said. "It rarely breaks down."

Modern technology is making its way into the small print shop business as well.

"There used to be 20 machines in shops in our three-county area," Roselle said. "Now, we're the last one. We used to use it for everything, but now we have computers. We just use it to print tickets and prayer cards."

John Pylarinos, owner of A&D Printing in Jamaica, N.Y., has two in his family-owned print shop. One time all of the printing in the shop was done on Linotype machines, he said. Burns services them.

"I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have him," Pylarinos said.

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