Newspaper editorials are designed to inspire their readers to think. The Carteret County News-Times hit the bullseye with its July 19 editorial tribute to the late Vernon Thompson of Atlantic Beach. I didn’t know Vernon, but I knew his type.
It was fun learning about Vernon’s contributions to the News-Times during his career, dating back more than 50 years to the days of “hot type” in the 1960s.
Vernon, who died at age 82, was part of a family known as the Retired Hot Metal Printers. Its motto is: “We make type the old-fashioned way. We pour it.”
The editorialist applauded Vernon as a venerable typographer, a truly skilled trades professional, “someone who could operate, fix and basically cajole Linotype and Ludlow machines to cast the lead type for the paper’s...flatbed press.”
Furthermore, “Vernon was able to read a frame of lead type that was upside down and wrong-reading as fast as if he were reading the printed page.”
This ability to essentially read upside down and backwards is not something they teach you in journalism school. You had to learn it as an apprentice in the “backshop” of a working newspaper.
The workhorse machine of the backshop, according to Bob Greene, former columnist with the Chicago Tribune, was the Linotype. “They were amazing contraptions – true miracles of engineering – that were used to set type made from molten metal,” he noted.
The Linotype was invented in 1886 in Baltimore by German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler. Thomas Edison called the machine “the eighth wonder of the world,” with its 18,000 moving parts.
Dan Piepenbring of The Paris Review newspaper, based in New York City, described the Linotype as “the offspring of a gloriously complicated love affair between a Singer sewing machine, a loom and an oom-pah band.”
Hot type created a unique “team spirit,” Greene said. Maxine E. Hensel of the Maryville (Ohio) Journal-Tribune, epitomized the bond that existed between writers and Linotype operators.
Hensel was one of those Linotype operators. She told Greene: “When I’d see something that didn’t seem right, I’d go talk to an editor or a reporter, just to check it out.”
“When the paper would come up, you would automatically look at the stories you helped set in type,” Hensel said. “You didn’t write the stories, but they felt like they were yours anyway.”
Jay Thorwaldson broke into the newspaper businesses as a reporter with the Palo Alto (Calif.) Times during the tail-end of the hot type era.
“With the demise of hot type, old printers’ pranks died, too,” Thorwaldson said. A wily compositor might complain to a cub reporter that “he was having trouble with type lice. Those are little varmints that infest galleys of type that have been sitting around awhile, usually a few weeks, at least. Sort of like tiny termites that live in lead.”
“‘Look,’ he would say, pulling out a dusty old galley and spreading the slugs (individual lines of type) apart in a fan-shaped bend. No type lice. ‘Well, sometimes you have to bring them to the surface,’ he would say, pouring some ink-solvent onto the type. ‘This makes ‘em come out for air.’”
As the unsuspecting rookie reporter would lean over and peer down between the separated slugs to get a closer look, the compositor would snap them closed, splashing solvent everywhere and scaring the devil out of the young man or woman. It was a rite of passage.
And now you know how “ink gets into the blood” of people who work in the newspaper industry.
May Vernon Thompson be smiling down upon us all.