The Museum of Printing.

The Friday before last, Scott and I joined up with zoz‘s IAP seminar on Publishing Your Own ‘Zine on their trip to the Museum of Printing in North Andover. Scott was drawn in by promises of a working Linotype, and his excited descriptions of the machine’s operation drew me in as well.
We left MIT around 2 in the afternoon and drove out to the museum. We were met at the entrance by the director, Gardner Lepoer, a man who has been in the printing business all his life and who knows more about the history of the printed word than anyone else with whom I’ve ever had a conversation. He gave us a personalized tour that lasted for three hours and toured every gallery in the extensive complex, running from the first printing on stones to desktop publishing: lithography, movable type, platen presses, and the amazing demonstration, as promised, of a working Linotype, which has to be among the most amazing pieces of machinery I have ever encountered. Here’s a good description of what it’s all about. Briefly stated, the revolution of the Linotype was the ability to use a keyboard to set type line by line: fast, efficient, and reusable.
In addition to presses and typesetting machines, the museum also has an extensive collection of foundry type, which is simply lovely to behold. I was struck by the care with which printed materials had to be composed before the days of desktop publishing. One of the points that Gardner made was that, in the days of composing pages on printing presses, white space was not just what was left over, but a physical part of the set page: you had to use spacer blocks to lock everything in place. He argued that this made for more considered layout: space was a thing you inserted into the page intentionally, and something which was therefore thought about with more care, rather than just the space where you couldn’t fit anything else. I thought this was an interesting point (probably a very valid one) about how the mechanical/technical/physical constraints on the process have subtle but real effects. To me, it’s a more extreme example of, say, the difference between writing on a computer and writing on a typewriter: when you don’t have the ability to easily go back and correct your mistakes, you tend to think about your writing differently. You plan your ideas and sentences out before you type them; you structure your thoughts and ideas with more care than you do when given the option of endless deletion/correction/manipulation. In this way, the technology itself has a direct impact on the output, though this influence is not easily seen after the fact. I find this to be true for myself, at least, and there are certain writing activities for which I will specifically bring out my typewriter, knowing that the process it will enforce will help me produce a better piece of writing.
In addition to their extensive collection of foundry type, the museum also has inherited the entire Mergenthaler type library from the Smithsonian. (Mergenthaler was the company that manufactured the Linotype.) The library consists of all the engineering drawings, circa the first two decades of the twentieth century, specifying all the letters of all the different fonts of all the different alphabets for all the different languages for which Mergenthaler made Linotypes, which were the industry standard from about the turn of the century until the late 1960s and early 1970s. We were fortunate to have a look at these amazing documents.
We learned a great deal over the course of our visit. Some of my favorite discoveries included the automatic counter mechanisms for platen presses (a standard multi-digit counter in the style of a library due date stamp, actuated by the depression of a button, caused by the press making a copy), and the way in which spacing and justification works on the Linotype. Wonderful examples of engineering.
Photos of the trip are up here. A (rather long) movie of the linotype in operation may be found here.
I highly recommend a visit to the museum to anyone who is interested in printing or machinery, or even just the social history of printing technology. The staff are attentive and knowledgeable, and I honestly don’t know how they’re paying the rent right now, so they could use the visitors. Like my visits to the Metropolitan Water Works and Boston Light, it was a fascinating and transfiguring experience.

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3 thoughts on “The Museum of Printing.

  1. You might already know this, but there are some printing presses on the 4th floor of W20.
    APO has one motor-driven letterpress and one small ‘hand press’. They will print some types of jobs (tickets, order forms, sometimes business cards, etc.) at their discretion for people who are associated with MIT. The larger of the two presses previously belonged to the hotel whose mortal remains are now Ashdown.
    And LSC uses one or more offset presses to print publicity posters. I seem to recall that they had three, of which two were in active use. But that was around 1998 — so even if I’m not misremembering, things may well have changed.

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