Letterpress, Linotype, Wharfdale and flongs; Printing Like It’s 1898.

If you are ever on the Hume Highway (the road between Melbourne and Sydney) and you notice that it is the second Sunday of the month, I strongly recommend you drop in at the Federal Standard building on the main street of the little town of Chiltern.

The Federal Standard Printing Works, in Chiltern, Victoria, Australia.

The Federal Standard Printing Works, in Chiltern, Victoria, Australia.

The wider area is well known for its 19th century goldfields and the Rutherglen wine region, but (for me) the star attraction is the Federal Standard Printing Works.  The unassuming little building hides a working Linotype machine, a working Wharfdale newspaper press (over 170 years old and in continual use up to about 1970) and a working treadle press.  They all still work, and are still in their original installation something very rare.

On the second Sunday of the month (2015 schedule shown below), you can pop in between about 1100 and 1500 and Rob and Mary will most likely be there and can show you how it all works.


Rob was a hand and machine setter for much of the 1960s and 70s, and he’ll show off the gear, especially the Mergenthaler Linotype machine which, for my money, is an absolute marvel of the 19th century, to match any development by the more famous names of Brunel, Stephenson, Edison and the like.  Rob rarely fires up the furnace and actually casts lines of type — though this can be done — but will show how the thing sets up a row of type then distributes the letters back into the magazine.  A key press on the keyboard causes a little mould (they are known as matrices) to drop down onto a rail.  Once the line of moulds is assembled (and I apologise if I’m not using the right terminology), it gets filled with hot metal (alloy of lead, tin, antimony) and a line (slug) of type drops out, ready for dropping into the chase and locking up for printing.  Then, because each matrix has a unique pattern of notches, not unlike the teeth on a key, the machine automagically sorts them back into their right place in the cassette and they can be used again.

The Chiltern Linotype 2.

The Chiltern Linotype.

The Chiltern Linotype 1.

The Chiltern Linotype (again).

The Linotype revolutionised printing.  It did for printing what the Model T did for car ownership.

Entry is by gold coin donation ($1 and $2 in Australia).  To see the equipment, still installed in place in a real working print shop, and running, and to pick up an example of its handiwork (the brown and gold [Bob’s a Hawks fan] flyer giving the opening hours was printed on the handpress) was a lot of fun and very interesting.  Done well, the results of letterpress are beautiful and tactile; very attractive.  Of course, this glosses over the time-consuming work of setting the type, especially the hand setting.  But it is easy to see the attraction of setting up a private press, and there are plenty of folks around who have done so (Briar press).

The Wharfdale is the size of a big table, and was used to print the local newspaper for over 100 years.  Samples from a print run a few years ago (it still works, as I said) are available.  They look something like this:

An example from the Wharfdale: Federal Standard from 2001.

An example from the Wharfdale: Federal Standard from 2001.

There is something truly inspiring about purely mechanical solutions.  They might be subtle and ingenious,  but you can see them working, and you can believe (possibly wrongly, I’ll admit) that with enough study you could come to understand them and use them.  Electronics are not like that.  Now, the Linotype does use electricity to heat the metal and drive the mechanism, but it does not have to; these jobs could be done using fire and mechanical methods.  And a hand press is purely mechanical and reasonably comprehensible.  If you could send such a machine back in time to ancient Greece or Rome or China or mediaeval France or wherever, some clever man or woman might be able to figure it out.  Some infrastructure would be needed — metal working skills, mostly. With a smart phone or a laptop we need a whole industrial society with networks for electricity and signals; their dependency on infrastructure is more pronounced, their longevity correspondingly more fragile.  When the Voyagers went into space, the recordings were on a mechanical device — a gold gramophone disk, essentially — for similar reasons.  Universality and robustness. It’s why we risk entering a digital dark age, when if data records are solely electronic and can only be read by custom software running on electronics, they risk becoming evanescent quite quickly.  A record stored on a computer needs a complex industrial society if it is to remain accessible, it needs to be continually transferred to newer hardware, possibly have its format converted to work with newer software — and this must happen every few years.

Of course, it might be preferable if a lot of what’s stored on our computers was ultimately lost.  I suspect we’d look better in the eyes of after-comers if most of what is ‘in the cloud’ does vanish in the mists of time.  But there’s much of value that would be lost too.  In my own field, more and more scientific journals are available only on the web.  Many may still print a limited number of copies for national libraries and archives and the like, but for how long?Oh, and a flong is a sort of mould used in copying a block of type once it has been set so it can be reproduced later without having to reset the type, or so that the type can be reused.  Scrabble fans take note.


Printing types.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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