Hot metal typesetting

Hot metal typesetting

In printing and typography, hot metal typesetting (also called mechanical typesetting, hot lead typesetting, hot metal, and hot type) refers to 19th-century technologies for typesetting text in letterpress printing. This method injects molten type metal into a mold that has the shape of one or more glyphs. The resulting sorts and slugs are later used to press ink onto paper.


Types of typesetting

Two different approaches to mechanising typesetting were independently developed in the late 19th century. One, known as the Monotype composition caster system, produced texts with the aid of perforated paper-ribbons, all characters are cast separate. These machines could produce texts also in "large-composition" up to 36 point. The Super-caster, was another machine produced by Monotype, designed to produce single type, up to 72 point.

The other approach was to cast complete lines as one slug, usually comprising a whole line of text.

Of this system there have been at least 5 different enterprises:

All these machines were operated by non-qwerty-keyboards. There was however another system, completely dependent of hand-labour:

This machine was able to cast display body sizes that other mechanical composition systems were unable to produce. In this way headings could be produced for text produced on other machines.

The success of these machines lay in different fields: the Monotype caster was more popular for bookwork and the Linotype system found success in newspaper production.

There is another essential difference between Monotype and all the "slug"-producing machines: a monotype-machine can function with a minimal set of matrices: each character needed one mat. While linecasters cannot function this way, and these systems need quite large numbers of matrices.


The key feature of the Linotype was the use of molds that circulated through the machine in its various stages of operation. One was the space band (a special two-part sliding wedge) and the other was the matrix which was made of brass. The matrices were stored in one of several magazines on top of the machine (this gave the operator with a choice of fonts; these could also be exchanged with other extra magazines as desired) while the space bands were stored in a box closer to the keyboard.

Once a key was pressed, the matrix would pass through what was known as the 'assembler front' down past a rotating fiber wheel (known as the star wheel) and into the 'assembling elevator' (which served the same purpose as the hand compositor's stick). When the space band key near the keyboard was pressed, one of the space bands would drop out of the box and almost directly into the assembling elevator. The assembling elevator or more commonly just the 'assembler was adjustable for different lengths of line (in picas).

Once the line approached its correct length, the operator would be made aware of this by a bell or other indicator. If the line was 'loose' or too short, there would be too much 'white space' for the space band wedges to fill out the line, and the matrices could possibly turn sidewise as the machine prepared for the casting operation. If the line was 'tight' or too long, the elevator carrying the matrices and space bands would not seat properly in front of the mold slot. Both the Linotype and Intertype machines had two important safeties that acted during the casting operation - the 'pump stop' and the 'vise automatic' - to prevent a "squirt" of molten type metal from happening (encasing the matrices and the elevator in metal in the process). Not only was it time-consuming to clean up after a squirt, matrices could often be damaged, so it was considered very poor form for an operator (or the machinist who cared for the machine) to permit this to happen.

When the line was assembled to the correct length, the operator pressed down on a lever which raised the elevator up into the delivery channel. The delivery channel would transfer the matrices out of the assembler and into the first elevator. The first elevator then descends to a position in front of the mold, and if the elevator did not descend fully by the time the machine started the process of aligning the matrices (most often caused by a 'tight' line), the first of the two safeties - the vise automatic - would bring the machine to a full stop before the supporting lugs on the matrices were crushed by the mold. Once the matrices were in proper position, two actions would take place in sequence: the matrices would be aligned vertically and face-wise while a bar rises from below to force the movable sleeves on the space bands upwards to cause them to fill out the line to the exact width of the mold. If the justification bar made a full cycle and the line was still not fully justified, the second safety - the pump stop - would prevent the plunger in the metal pot from going down. The space bands were an important feature of this machine with automatic justification of each line by equally adjusting the white space between each word. Since the type used was proportional and not fixed in width, solving this justification problem mechanically was very important. Some later models had a feature that permitted the lines to be cast with the alignment to either left, right or centered. Operators running earlier models would use special 'blank' matrices (in 4 sizes) to manually create the proper amount of whitespace beyond the space bands' range.

With the matrices aligned and the space bands set to the correct measure, the machine would 'lock up' the line with great force and the plunger would inject the molten type metal into the space created by the mold cavity and the assembled line. The machine would then separate the mold disk (carrying the freshly cast slug), the metal pot, and the first elevator. The mold disk would then turn to present the line at the ejecting position, in the process passing by a knife that trimmed the base of the slug to the type height (0.918"). The slug would then be forced through an adjustable pair of knives to trim the slug to the proper body height before sliding down into a 'galley' next to the operator. Depending on the model of machine, the mold disk could have 4, 6, or 2 molds, giving the operator his choice of type lengths and body sizes.

As the mold disk is turning, the first elevator simultaneously rises to its upper position and the space bands and matrices are vertically aligned in preparation for the second transfer. The matrices have a series of teeth in a V-shaped notch on top and as the transfer is completed, the matrices slide onto the second elevator bar which carries the matrices by these V-shaped notches. The space bands, having no such notches remain in the second transfer channel and are soon gathered by two levers and pushed back into the space band box. While the space bands are being pushed into their box, the second elevator continues rising towards the distributing mechanism at the top of the machine. At the top of the machine, a lever moves left to make way before coming back to push the matrices off the second elevator and into the distributor box. This mechanism feeds the matrices at precise intervals such that they travel between three rotating screws. The matrix is carried along a notched bar between the three screws until the notches on the bar and matrix match whereupon the matrix drops down into its proper channel in the magazine.

It was a source of pride for trained operators to boast of being able to 'hang' a line - being able to keep a line waiting in the delivery channel while the machine was casting the previous line and the operator was composing the next one.

The metal pot was kept filled by the operator tossing in small ingots of type metal every few lines, or later, by mechanical feeders that carried large ingots of type metal (and which often carried two 'pigs' at a time to be consumed in turn, the operator hanging a fresh one when one was consumed). These feeders were actuated by various methods, but the end result was the same - the ingots were fed little by little into the pot, keeping it filled to an optimum level.

From time to time, the slugs galley would be transferred to the composing table to be set in the form, and once the press run was completed and the slugs removed from the form, they would be tossed into the 'hell box' for remelting into new ingots. At intervals the lead would be remelted and the oxidized metal (dross) skimmed off. As part of this process, 'plus metal' would be added in the form of small ingots to replenish that portion of the alloyed metals that was lost by the formation of dross (by oxidization of the metal in the machine's pot or during the remelting stage). The type metal would be poured into ingot molds - whether small ones for manually feeding the metal pots or larger ones for the metal feeders (and in which case, special attention had to be given the 'eye' end as it would have to take the weight of the entire ingot - failures often resulted in it dropping into the pot and making for a big splash of metal)

The Intertype Corporation developed (c. 1914) a modified version of the Linotype machine when the patents ran out and became quite popular as well. This led to a long-lasting legal fight by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company (and who eventually lost).

Typograph and Monoline

These machines were bought out by Linotype, to minimize competition.


A manual linecasting solution known as the Ludlow Typograph also met with success because it was able to cast display type sizes that other mechanical composition systems were unable to produce.

The Ludlow consisted of a very heavy metal table with a flat top about waist high and a depressed slot into which a "stick" was inserted. Underneath was a pot of molten lead and a plunger. The stick was used to hand compose the lines of type, typically headlines in 18 point or larger with 72 point commonly being available. This was from brass molds stored in cases on either side of the Ludlow. The cases were not the traditional "California Cases" used to set body type, but simpler alphabetically arranged wooden or metal cases, each one containing a given font in a specific size and style such as bold face, italic or condensed. The metal type cabinets were often built with inclined drawers for easy access to the matrices.

After a line of type was assembled into the stick a special blocking slug was inserted to seal the end. Then the stick was placed mold side down into the slot on the table, a clamp locked down to securely hold the stick and the Ludlow activated. The plunger would snap down into the pot with considerable force, injecting molten type metal into the mold at a high rate of speed to ensure the mold was filled before the metal solidified. If the stick was not properly filled out or mounted firmly, or the special terminating block was forgotten, a dreaded "squirt" would result, often encasing the operator's toes in molten lead and leaving a mess that needed to be peeled off the Ludlow surfaces. Operators were encouraged to wear heavy boots with steel toes and be quick at removing one. It was also not uncommon for some of the type metal to be projected up onto the ceiling, no matter the height. As with the Linotype / Intertype machines, the Ludlow machines were often fitted with metal feeders to keep the pot filled to optimum level.

Towards the end of its life as a common backshop type setter, the Ludlow was often joined by the "Super Surfacer" a specially designed surface plane that would smooth the surface of the freshly cast type and ensure it was exactly type high. A Ludlow slug was just the letters overhanging a central spine about 12 points wide (T shaped viewed from the end). It needed to be bolstered by Elrod slugs on either side for support. The number of slugs above and below the central spine could adjust the white space above and below the type making it a very flexible system for large type.

The Elrod was a machine used to cast slugs, non-type high lead strips of a specific width, which were used extensively in page justification, that is adjusting the white space between paragraphs and any other area when small bits of white space were needed. Large areas of white space were created by wooden blocks called 'furniture' or 'reglets'.

All these line-casting machines used various alloys near the eutectic point and which typically consisted of approximately 4% tin and 12 % antimony and the balance being lead. These alloys were proportioned such that the type metal would solidify as rapidly as possible at the lowest possible freezing point.


The Monotype System took a different direction in hot metal typesetting, with the ability to cast loose type using a paper tape operated automatic casting machine. The paper tape would be first generated on a keyboard and then used to cast the type, the tape could be stored for future casting for subsequent editions. This was a popular system for book work. Text was produced completely aligned, with all spaces exactly the same width. Corrections and complex work could be done on the text by hand after the bulk of the text had been set by machine.

This type was most times made of an alloy (8-10% Tin, 15-20% Antimony) slightly harder than the line casting alloys but was not as hard as the foundry type used for hand setting of loose letters. This allowed reasonable print runs or conversion to stereotypes for longer print runs. But these machines could produce type with all possible alloys, when needed.

The used type, like the slugs from line casters, was re-melted when no longer needed. Each time remelting caused some loss of Tin, through oxidation. This loss needed to be monitored and compensated.

The Monotype Corporation survived the demise of the hot metal typesetting era by selling digital type.


Towards the end of its life hot metal composition in newspapers was kept alive by the proof press. As each page was set and locked up, it was moved on a turtle (a rolling steel table) to the manual proof press where it was hand inked and a single very high quality proof was pulled. This proof could then be photographed and converted to a negative.

Black paper was inserted before the proof was photographed for each of the photos on the final page to create clear windows in the negative. The separately made halftones would be taped into these clear windows on the negative. This negative could then be used to burn the photosensitized printing plate for an offset press. In this way the heavy investment in hot metal typesetting could be adapted to the newer offset technology during a transition period.

Comparison to successors

The nature of text printed via the hot-metal method is notably different from that produced by the phototypesetting processes that followed it. As the lead type used to print (letterpress) a page had been directly formed from the type matrix a good fidelity to the original was achieved. Phototypesetting suffered (at least in its early days) from many problems relating to optical distortion and misalignment. These disappointing results were a thorn in the sides of many authors and readers (especially of complex or mathematical texts that had many small sub and superscripts). A desire to recreate the aesthetic qualities of hot lead spurred Donald Knuth to create one of the first general purpose digital typesetting programs, TeX.

Although strictly speaking not typesetting, stereotyping (electrotype or nickeltype) could be used to cast a reproduction of an entire typeset page (or pages imposed in a forme) using a mould made with an impression using flong (similar to papier-mâché). The ensuing casting could be made curved for use on a rotary press or flat for the slower flat bed presses. This technique was often used in newspaper production.

See also

External links

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