Sometimes, when I need a break from coding or designing, my eyes fall on the three small pieces of brass tucked into a T-Model Ford hubcap sitting on my desk. The pieces of brass, called “mats,” transport me back in time to one of the most formative days of my life. A technological wonder from the 1880s, they are matrices used to cast printer’s type from a machine called the Linotype.
For a time, my folks beat out a living selling retail furniture in a small southern town. Our store was one of eight on the block, each a turn of the century, three sided brick box with a flat roof and glass front. To an eight year old who had to scatter sweeping compound on all the floors and sweep it up with a kitchen broom, the space seemed huge. (The day I saw my first push broom, I almost fainted. What a marvelous invention. To bad my father would never spring for one.)
Since the store’s opening in the fall of 1966, I would walk to the store once school let out, do my homework, and wait for a ride home, only a few blocks away. My life there was an after-school affair except for Saturdays. I spent all day at the store that day. It took me well into adulthood to realize why I was so comfortable working every Saturday.
There isn’t much for a kid to do in a furniture store, but there I was nonetheless. My grandmother would occasionally send me to the store next door to buy her a can of snuff. While she worked hard to hide the fact that she used snuff, I’m pretty sure Dewy Paul knew I wasn’t the one using it.
Other than Dewy Paul’s, I pretty much ignored what was in the other seven stores. There was a short-lived movie theater. My mother had good memories of Saturday movies in the 40s. A nickel could buy a lot of fun back then, but the establishment was open only briefly in my lifetime.
Another shop was the grocery store my aunt and uncle ran for awhile, but most people bought their groceries in Athens, 20 miles west. There was a closed up diner in occupying another store. In another spot we covered the plate glass windows with brown craft paper and used it to keep furniture.
I spent a good bit of time in Willy Tate’s junk shop. Willy bought overstock items at a bargain and had done so, to judge from his inventory, for quite some time. There was no stock rotation, so slowly the store turned into a kind of museum. Still, a toy is a toy, and at times I scraped up the nickels and dimes need to liberate some long out of fashion plaything from Willy’s.
But that’s not where the magic happened. I don’t remember the first time I became aware of something interesting going on in the shop emblazoned in bold green and white: The Comer News. I do remember the first time I walked through its doors.
It was after school on a cool and windy late autumn afternoon. I peeped into the clear glass of the front door, cupping my hands around my face to see in as only an eight-year-old child can. I was surprised to see a jumble of large machines inside. I could see people working. I’d later learn that they were the seventy-eight-year-old Miss Mai Wynn and her two sons who lived just down my street.
One of the men motioned for me to come in.
“Hi, Little Wheel,” said the man called Sank. He and his brother Jere were only in their 50s but to me they seemed old indeed.
“What’s Big Wheel up to today?” he asked, referring to my father.
I have my father’s name, but he always went by BW. For those not from the American south, that’s pronounced “bee dubya.” It was years before I realized that my distant relative’s nickname, “Dub,” was actually short for William. The actor Dub Taylor, also from the south, was really named Walter.
Anyway, since Dad was known as BW, Sank called him “Big Wheel.” What did that make me? “Little Wheel.”
I still can feel the wind as I stepped out of the cold, letting the large wood-framed door shut behind me.
I hesitated just inside, taking in the strange sights, sounds, and smells. The building was open, and I could see from the plate-glass front all the way to the bare-brick wall in the back with its two barred windows and massive double doors that opened into the alley behind the building.
In between lay the entire operation of The Comer News, a weekly sheet of gossip, local ads, and small features that was cheap enough to be affordable for a small southern population. There were counters, large granite tables, a big flatbed press, some old wicker furniture, a power shaft on the very high ceiling with numerous leather belts running down to different machines.
And then I saw the largest typewriter I had ever seen. Or, I should say, I thought it was a typewriter. Miss Mai Wynn was sitting at it, punching keys on the strangest keyboard I had ever seen. I walked up to her slowly.
She typed with the first finger of each hand. Every tap caused a clunking sound as a small bit of brass fell in next to previously selected brass pieces. I stood to her left, looking at the pieces, a sheet of notebook paper with cursive writing on it, the keyboard, and the woman, who seemed downright ancient.
“Watch it!” she said, pushing me back a bit. “It’s squirting a bit today.” As she moved me out of the way with her left hand, she pressed a handle with her right.
All of a sudden all hell broke loose.
The entire machine seemed to be in motion. Wheels began turning and the little brass things were caught up in a little elevator ride. A large, round piece of metal right in front of me pushed in, and I could see some kind of hot soup. Then an arm, which to me looked seven feet long, rotated, grabbing all those little brass pieces. The arm rotated back up and the brass disappeared into the top of a large, flat metal box. I could hear them clicking loudly in an irregular rhythm.
A silver metal bar about an eighth of an inch thick and three inches long dropped on a small tray in front of me. It was the last in a long row of silver bars that was gently being nudged out of the way by the machine.
Even today, as I think back on that moment, I get excited. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. She typed on the keyboard, pushed a leaver at the end of each line, and a fully formed line of type came out the machine. It was molded from the brass pieces that I later learned are known as mats. The mats were then automatically sorted back into the typeface magazines.
The process is called “hot metal,” and the machine was a Mergenthaler Linotype. This was the bedrock of newspapers beginning in 1886 when the New York Tribune first used the Linotype. Its reign continued until the 1970s when they were replaced by computer typesetting.
The amazing machine stayed as simple as it could be. It was robust and could run forever. Large and loud, it was a kinetic sculpture of important usefulness.
I soon realized why Miss Mai Wynn told me to step back. Suddenly the machine made a different sound and a shot of molten lead streamed out. She jumped out of the way much faster than someone would expect of her seventy eight years. There was a impromptu, star-like lead sculpture on the concrete floor where I originally stood.
“Like I said, it’s squirtin’ today.”
Miss Mai Wynn and her long gone husband CB bought the Comer News fifty two years earlier in 1914. I’m not sure when the paper first started. Later, I would find issues from the 1890s.
I ventured further into the large room. There was a flatbed press that I would later spend many wonderful hours watching. There was a paper folder that took sheets from the press and folded them into a complete newspaper ready for display on the paper stand.
There were cases of type from before the Comer News had the Linotype. There were three sets of cases: roman, italic, and bold. Each had two sections, one above the other. Normal letters came from the lower case and capital letters were in the upper case.
The individual types were called “sorts.” Printing was only over once the type was sorted back into little boxes. A small hand-held device called a “stick” was used to collect all the type needed for a line of text. Although it was collected from left to right, the type was put into the stick upside down. One got very good at reading backwards writing that was upside down. The mind is an amazing thing.
If you were loading up your stick an ran out of a letter, like when the box containing the Es became empty, you were said to be “out of sorts.” And you certainly were.
But on that day I hadn’t learned all this yet. I left the case and saw a disassembled hand press, still in parts from the paper’s last move. It was a cast iron version of the wooded presses used in Guttenberg’s time.
The farther back in the large room I went, the farther back in time I was. All the equipment ever used by the paper going back to the 1880s was all still there.
In the alleyway behind the building was a gas burner and mold to remelt the type after the paper was printed. The Comer News printed right off the hot metal because their runs were small, only 2,000 per issue. Larger papers made a plate from the lines of type and printed from that. Books used copper pates cast from wax impressions of the linotype slugs.
What does all this have to do with the C compiler, LALR parsers, Unix, Plan 9, the Internet, Network Address Translation, or the PIX Firewall? Nothing maybe. Or maybe everything.
One of the things that first intrigued me about Unix was troff. As soon as there was a computer, there were people using it as a typewriter. At MIT, the PDP–1 was the world’s most expensive typewriter. Later a program was written on CTSS called RUNOFF that took a file of text lines with some simple commands and formatted them for the line printer.
When Ken, Dennis, Doug, and friends create the Unix system, they soon wrote a version of RUNOFF they called roff.
The letterpress gave way to offset printing that no longer used the hot metal type, but a photographic process to etch printing plates from a black and white image. Photographic paper was exposed by shining light on silhouettes of the type, developing the paper just like a photograph, and pasting up the results on boards used in the offset printing process.
Joe Ossana soon acquired one of these phototypesetters at the Labs and wrote a new version of roff to drive it. That program is called troff. Typesetting runoff has been a mainstay of my word processing for as long as I have had Unix systems. I still use it. More than any typesetting software I know, it’s the most like the hot metal process.
troff was originally written for a mechanical CAT typesetting which used fiber optics to flash an image on the paper. The fonts were on a rail around a wheel. There were four quadrants: three for roman, italics, and bold, and an extra rail for special characters.
Ossana tragically died in a car wreck in 1977, and troff was taken up by Brian Kernighan.
The same company that created the Linotype got into the computer typesetting business with the Linotron 202. In early July, 1979, Bell Labs purchased one. Joe Condon designed and built an interface to it. Ken Thompson wrote a driver on the PDP–11 for it. And Brian modified troff to drive it.
Brian modified troff not to drive the Linotron directly, but to output a machine independent language, driven by width tables that a separate program could turn into control for future typesetting devices. The result is the current troff used at Coraid today. At one point I wrote all the code to typeset using a simple HP InkJet printer. But I digress.
Seven years after I had first seen Miss Mai Wynn operate the Linotype, I was back that large room, this time as for my high school paper. My teacher had had the brilliant idea, at least to my way of thinking, of actually printing a paper and not running off copies on the spirit duplicator. After all, who wants to see their byline in purple?
Guess which local newspaper he contacted? Miss Mai Wynn was gone by then, and Jere had taken the helm. Instead of hot metal, there was a desk-sized photo typesetter in the front corner. The machine both exposed the type and developed the galley that emerged as a four to six inch stirp of slightly damp paper.
Jere ran the machine, sitting at a qwerty keyboard and reading a small, single line display of a red LED dot matrix. We took the galleys and pasted them on boards to be sent to the offset presses at another location. It was fun but not the same. The craft was gone from it. And the quality. The little machine didn’t set type as well. It was clearly a win for the Comer News but a bit of a loss for the world as a whole.
As an adult, I would run into Jere every now and then when I visited Dad. Sank, who always greeted me as Little Wheel, died in 1989. (His name was really John Sanford, by the way.) Jere graduated from Mercer University in 1936 and the University of Georgia Law School in 37. He served in the Navy during WWII and returned home to help his mother after the war.
He died in a car wreck in 2005 at the age of 91.
We are the sum total of our experiences, both good and bad. To a kid with unlimited curiosity about how everything worked, the kindness and openness of Miss Mai Wynn, Sank, and Jere Ayers must surely have influenced and enabled all that I have done since.
I will always remember that cool autumn day when I stepped into a new world.