40 years of ‘cold type’ started in September, ‘73
Mike Brown

I ronic, that the announcement of a grant that assures “digital archives” of The Reporter will be available online some day in the not too distant future should be in September, 2013.

Because in September, 1973, 40 years go this week, The Reporter underwent a transformation that certainly ranks at the very top of changes in the 140-year history of this publication.

Exactly 40 years ago, this newspaper changed from the old ‘hot type” method of production to what’s known as “offset.”

It’s also called “cold type” for obvious reasons.

It was a very big deal. Probably only the onset of today’s high-tech print generation, with the ability to compose pages on a computer and e-mail them to a printer, ranks ahead of the hot type-cold type change.

Art by Karmjit Gill, a senior at Rockdale High School. Art by Karmjit Gill, a senior at Rockdale High School. The old hot type method had survived, with a few refinements, pretty much for 100 years when the big switch was made in 1973.

Why did they call it “hot type?” Because it was. Type was set on linotype machines, monstrous clanking things that had to be fed a steady diet of molten metal. (We still have one).

Yes, metal was melted down into liquid form so it could be cast into lines, called “slugs,” that became the basis for pages. Each line of type, along with photos—which are an entirely different process—had to be cut to the correct size with a metal power saw.

From the linotypes and saws, all type was “blocked into” page forms and locked down tight.

Those massive page forms are what went onto the presses.

I just missed all of that, literally by a few months, but there were still plenty of people working at The Reporter from that era when I got here.

There was a lot of heavy lifting and good old grunt-and-groan work involved in getting those page forms to the press.

It was heavy metal and I don’t mean Metallica or Iron Maiden.

Each of those page forms weighed up to 100 pounds. Some of us around the print shop still remember legendary Reporter press man Roland Lawson and how he handled those forms with such skill and strength.

But, in September, 1973, it all changed.

Instead of molten lead slugs, type was set on photographic paper. It came out in strips on computerized—yes, computerized in 1973—phototypesetting machines.

It was dried, waxed on the back, cut apart and pasted up onto wooden boards.

Again, the process for photographs was a world unto itself, that gradually changed over the years, but even at the beginning it was light years away from the hot type era.

The pages, weighing a few ounces instead of 100 pounds, went into a camera.

Yes, a camera, a really big one. We still have one in a Reporter darkroom. It produced page sized negatives, that were developed in that darkroom. I actually got in on that process, thanks to the excellent tutelage of former Reporter employee Edward Bounds.

He never referred to his teaching me as “tutelage,” by the way.

Two of those page-sized negatives were then carefully pieced together and then the real magic happened.

No kidding. A n aluminum plate with a sensitized coating was placed on what we called a “plate burner”—we’ve still got one of those, too—the negatives were secured onto it, the whole thing was flipped over and it was exposed to an apparatus that looked like the business end of a welder’s torch.

It would literally burn an image onto the plate, hence the term “burner.” Except when the plate came off the burner it was blank.

The plate was then placed in what was literally a big sink. Two kinds of stuff were poured on at different times, with a good water washing in between, and you rubbed-flicked-swiped-buffed the entire surface,

The image of newspaper pages appeared and it went to the press.

There was a definite art to this. You needed to rub the entire surface, then wash off the stroke marks because they’d be ink sensitized and if you didn’t get them all off there would be streaks in little Susie’s face in the picture of her and the calf at the Fair.

When you turn the page from the last hot type to the first offset issue in the 1973 file, it’s literally spectacular.

Everything is cleaner, sharper, more defined. The lines in between stories are gone.

It’s just plain easier to read. Which was, of course, the point.

It seems we have a new marvel every other day in our high-tech age. And more power to it.

But I don’t know if you could ever duplicate the sheer wonder of that first offset edition again.

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