In an extraordinary way, The Washington Post and the Linotype have been linked historically in the development of American newspapers. Hence the end of the Linotype age at The Post is a milestone in the changing mechanics of mass communication, one well worth marking.
In the Western world, modern communications by use of the printed word began around 1436 when Johann Gutenberg, a German printer, invented movable type. That signaled the end of hand-lettered manuscripts, the privilege of the few. Gutenberg's process of hand-set type, letter by letter, made printed material widely and easily available to the literate and, in turn, helped spur the drive for literacy.
In America, Gutenberg's invention provided the basic mechanism, from colonial times until late in the 19th century, of the American newspaper. Then came Ottmar Mergenthaler, also a German, who emigrated to Baltimore. There in January 1883, he unveiled a long-dreamed-of typesetting machine.
Among the dozen intensely interested spectators that day was Stilson Hutchins, who had founded The Washington Post barely five years earlier, on Dec. 6, 1877. By 1888 Mergenthaler's Linotype was ready for production, and the first 102 were ordered by the New York Tribune, the Louisville Courier-Journal, the Chicago News, the Chicago Inter-Ocean and The Washington Post. Only the Courier-Journal and The Post survive today.
Some accounts credit Whitelaw Reid of the Tribune with naming Mergenthaler's machine the Linotype, an obvious choice since it produced type line-by-line instead of letter-by-letter. Other accounts credit the name to Hutchins.
In any case, Hutchins successfully exploited the new invention. With Reid and others, he formed a syndicate in 1885 to promote the machine. Hutchins became the principal promoter of the National Typographical Co., created to market the Linotype, and he received a $200,000 finder's fee from the syndicate. He arranged a Washington demonstration which President Chester A. Arthur attended.
In January 1889, Hutchins sold his newspaper, investing part of the proceeds in the new company's stock. Later that year Hutchins received a $250,000 commission for selling the English rights.
When Hutchins died in 1912, his fortune, much of it invested in Washington real estate, was estimated at Between $4 million and $5 million, and most of it had come from the Linotype. In 1911 alone, his income from Linotype stock reportedly was $38,000.
But Hutchins' Post was slow to put the new invention to work. The probable reason was the suspicion of The Post's printers, like printers eleswhere, that the Linotype would throw a lot of them out of work. There were, too, lingering misgivings as to the Linotype's workability as initial bugs were worked out.
In 1883-84, during a running fight over wages with the Columbia Typographical Union, Hutchins had for a year replaced union men with nonunion compositors. Not until after he had sold The Post did the paper begin full use of the Linotype.
The logical moment for the change came on Oct. 24, 1893, when The Post moved into its new building on E Street, facing Pennsylvania Avenue opposite the District Building. For about a month before the move, the new machines had been installed in the new building while hand-set type was still in daily use at the old Post building at 10th and D streets, NW.
An 1898 Post account of the changeover recounted that "each night after the copy had been set at the old office practicing on the machines, and reset by them. In this way it was found just what the men and machines would do, and when the final night came, when they had to set up the paper in earnest, everything went as smoothly as though it had been going on forever . . . ."
The Linotype then was basically the same machine as it is today at its demise. The Mergenthaler Linotype Co., the successor firm, recently estimated that "approximately 75,000" machines had been "produced here at Mergenthaler since its invention." Two later rival typesetting machines, the Intertype and the Monotype, were variants of the Linotype.
At The Washington Post, before the changeover to cold type began in the late 1970s, the paper had as many as 50 Linotypes in operation to set both news and advertising copy. As of today, the Linotype in the 15th Street lobby, now painted a glorious red, is a true relic.
A word should be said here about companion inventions. The Post began not only with hand-set type but with slow flat-bed presses that printed only one side of the newspaper pages at a time. By 1879, however, Hutchins was boasting of a new press "capable of striking off both sides of the paper at one impression." By 1890 The Post had installed rotary presses, fed with a continuous stream of newsprint, that could produce 48,000 12-page papers in an hour. The combination of these new rotary presses, able to run at high speeds, and the Linotype first made possible mass circulation newspapers.
The Post also began with reporters using either a pencil or a pen to write a single long-hand copy of their stories. As the need for duplicates increased, reporters switched to writing with a stylus, an agate-pointed pencil, on a thin yellow tissue known as a "flimsy." This produced an original to go to the typesetter and a copy to stay with the reporter and editor.
This bit of journalistic antiquity ended shortly before the 1893 introduction of the Linotype. The first typewriter, the Remington, came on the market in 1874-78 and by the 1890s it was in such general use that a Post reporter, Henry Litchfield West, urged his paper to buy them. He suceeded after challenging the then-editor, Frank Hatton, to a speed contest. West won with a Remington and the "hunt and peck" system -- using only the forefinger of each hand to hit the typewriter keys -- while Hatton used a pen. Hatton conceded and began to install Remingtons. Now typewriters, too, are disappearing with the Linotypes.
The other fundamentals of the modern newspaper, electricity and the telephone, data from roughly the same period in the century. Hutchins was an early enthusiast of Edison's electric lamp and he brought electricity to The Post in mid-1882. The Post had one of Washington's 140 original telephones, number 28, all installed in 1878.
Now The Post, like other newspapers, is moving into an electronic method of mass communication with the final steps in the changeover from "hot" to "cold" type -- all to produce a morning newspaper every day in what is now the last quarter of its 103rd year of existence.