296 lines of type  by Nick Asbury

The landlady was taking me round to show me what space was available. As we were walking through a loading bay in the factory, she asked about my restoration business and what kind of stuff I bought and sold. At that moment, we were passing under a mezzanine floor. I looked up and saw the corner of a wooden plans chest. 

Before the invention of the Linotype machine in 1884, typesetting was a slow business. Each letter was hand-picked from a tray (known as a ‘case’) and placed into a composing stick. To speed things up, capital letters were placed in the upper case and the others in the lower case, terms familiar to anyone tapping away on their keyboards today. 

The letters were arranged upside-down and in mirror image, before each composing stick was placed in a long tray, which was locked into place, ready to be inked and used for printing. Little wonder newspapers seldom ran to more than eight pages and often came out days after the events they reported.

Linotype changed everything. Invented in the USA by German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler, few technologies have had as radical or lasting an impact. A weird and wonderful contraption consisting of a 90-character keyboard attached to a machine the size of a large wardrobe, it produced ‘lines of type’ at a speed that would have seemed supernaturally fast at the time – Thomas Edison called it the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. 

Adopted by the New York Daily Tribune in 1886 and later by newspapers and printers around the world, Linotype gave rise to the mass media age. This was the machine that told the world the Titanic had sunk, war was over and man had reached the moon. Right up until the 1970s, it remained the industry standard, with teams of skilled operators hammering away on its keyboards, telling the world stories about itself.  

Then Linotype disappeared, superseded by photo-typesetting and computer technology. The transition was brutal. A machine that had been all-powerful was all but erased from cultural memory. A few machines made it into museums or have been kept in operation by dedicated enthusiasts. But the real legacy of Linotype is everywhere, hidden in plain sight.  

I pointed up to the plans chest and said, “That’s the kind of stuff I sell.” She said, “Oh, it’s full of stuff up there. It’s going to need clearing – you’ll have to take a look one day.” I said, “Can I take a look now?”

In Altrincham, a suburb of Manchester in the north of England, surrounded by leafy residential streets and modern apartment blocks, a red-brick industrial building is emblazoned with the words LINOTYPE AND MACHINERY LTD AD 1897. 

For decades, this was a powerhouse of the Linotype empire, manufacturing and exporting machines for use around the world. At its height, the factory employed more than 10,000 people, many living in an estate of 185 workers’ cottages, complete with two football grounds, four tennis courts, two bowling greens, a cricket ground, a playground and allotments – an industrial village created in a similar spirit to Port Sunlight on the Wirral, Bourneville in Birmingham and Saltaire near Bradford. 

The influence of Linotype is encoded in the surrounding street names, which honour the early directors of the company: Lawrence Road, Lock Road, Pollen Road, Bemrose Avenue. The factory has long since been repurposed into a series of offices, workshops and storage units for local traders. Andy Stuart based his industrial restoration business here and, in the summer of 2012, was looking for extra storage space. He found more than he expected.

The mezzanine was packed full of stuff. Cabinets, trolleys, stools, wooden boxes. All covered in a thick layer of dust, rat poison and pigeon droppings. She told me the one condition was I had to take everything. 

Among the many moving parts that made up the Heath Robinson-esque Linotype machine was a series of brass letter molds. As the operator struck the keyboard, the molds would arrange themselves into lines to be injected with molten lead, which cooled into a line of type ready to be inked for printing. Operating the machine was a hot, noisy and dangerous profession – a strange cross between being a subeditor and a boiler room engineer. 

Each set of brass molds represented a different font, case and size. Creating the molds was a delicate craft, requiring a set of precision guide drawings. When Linotype became obsolete, the drawings were considered worthless – an incidental by-product of a lost industrial age.

I was visiting that part of the factory again one day, purely by chance. As I walked under the mezzanine, the caretaker was tossing these folders out of the plans chests, off the mezzanine and into these big wheelie bins. I told him I’d bought the drawings, but he carried on. I ended up pushing the bins over to my unit to unload them. But if I hadn’t gone in that day – and I wasn’t meant to be there – they would have been destroyed.

Intended as functional engineering guides, these rediscovered drawings represent the DNA of modern typography. In exquisite detail, they show the early life of fonts that are still in wide use today, now translated into a digital context. They are a reminder of the physicality of typography. To look at them is akin to an astronomer gazing through a telescope at the birth of a distant galaxy.  

Manchester designer Trevor Johnson, known for his work on Factory Records, describes his reaction on seeing the drawings as one of ‘wonderment’. 

“I was surprised, obviously, by their accessibility, horrified that they'd been discarded, and hugely relieved that they'd been rescued. The beauty of the craftsmanship is a testament to an aspect of the designer’s profession that has always appealed to me. Letters.”

The drawings are working documents, complete with scribbled annotations and coffee stains. Stored haphazardly in drawers and boxes, the process of restoring them into coherent sets has been painstaking, with many folders missing a character or containing random extras. As far as possible, each box set contains a single collection that tells its own story. “This is a chance to see close-up the birth and evolution of familiar letterforms,” says Trevor Johnson. “And a chance also to learn that imperfections can be beautiful.”

Working in partnership with Polite Company, Andy Stuart has made the drawings available in sets in order to retain the integrity of meaningful collections. Of more than purely academic interest, these are works of commercial art that belong in the world, where they may inspire future generations of typographers and designers. 

When I look at the drawings, I think about the people who drew them – the draughtsmen who spent their working lives on this stuff. If they’d known their work, 80 years on, would be on people’s walls and being appreciated, I think they would have seen it as a great legacy. 

This set is a unique record of British industrial history, sent with respect back out into the world. Enjoy it, learn from it – and look after it. 

Written by Nick Asbury of creative partnership Asbury & Asbury, in collaboration with Trevor Johnson, Jack Jackson of Polite Company and Andy Stuart. 

The complete boxed collections each with a unique font or size will be available to purchase from Harrods and online on the Polite website - here.