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Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Bride

Casting and Composition, “Linotype-the Movie”

Marcel Duchamp, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) 1915-23, reconstruction by Richard Hamilton 1965-6, lower panel remade 1985

According to the filmmakers the film “Linotype-the Movie” started out as a movie about a machine and became a portrait about the machine’s admirers. A linotype machine is a  heavy but delicate machine that allows an operator to use a keyboard to string together moulds of letterforms. Hot metal is ejected into the moulds to create lines of type. The lines are then stacked into matrices, inked and printed.

The Linotype machine speeded up the setting of type by a factor of six, drastically reducing the cost of printing.  Before a German watchmaker invented the Linotype in 1870, newspapers were no more than eight pages long, books were prohibitively expensive for most people and public libraries were few. Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine enabled exponential growth of the reading public.

It’s unlikely that Marcel Duchamp ever operated a Linotype machine but he probably saw one. Here is Richard Hamilton describing the Large Glass:

 

Linotype MachineFrom Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of Applied Mechanics, 1892

 

 

“Water falls, the mill wheel begins to spin, and starts the slow reciprocations of the chariot, we overhear its chanted litanies cast into malic forms. We become aware of the moulded gas seeping towards the elaborate conditioning which will prepare it for its final orgiastic splashing and observe with wonder the beauty of its auras. The juices flow to the Bride, messages are transmitted from pools of random possibilities, the throbbing energy of a robotic world strains to create. The Bride stripped bare by her Bachelors, even rumbles into it’s fantastic splendour.”

Bachelor Apparatus-Plan (Drawing-0m.30 long-1913)

Hamilton liked the tools and trappings of engineers as much as Duchamp. From the geometry of Occultist Charts and Witnesses, we get Hamilton’s Pirelli tires and then later the reliefs of the Guggenheim.

The Glass is a hilarious and impossible contraption, a mechanical hive-bound queen bee, an elegant and mysterious engine. A peep-show. The bachelors (many) are forever separated from the bride (one) by a quarter inch gap between the two sheets of glass. There is no transfer of physical energy or substance between the bachelors and the bride they are adoring. All is imagined. The is even less obvious physical connection between the printed word and the thoughts it creates in the mind of the reader.

The marvellous progress of a letter identified and then strung into a line of metal type can be traced in several discrete steps.

A piece of paper, held in place above a keyboard, is read by the operator who types letters on the keyboard. Each stroke releases a negative imprint of a letterform from a magazine of matrices. From a spaceband box, wedge-like separators are lightly slid into spaces between words.

 

Linotype Mold and Pot
Paysage fautif
Marcel Duchamp, Paysage fautif [Faulty Landscape]

When a line of type has been assembled the row of matrices moves up the ‘first elevator’ to a justification vise where in order to justify the line, the wedge-shaped spacebands are expanded by the action of a spring-loaded ram that raises the tails, or bottoms, of the spacebands.

An amalgam of lead, tin and brass , bubbles away at ……degrees ready to be squirted into the matrices by the action of a piston in the pot that holds the molten metal. Operators talk of their first squirt. If ___ happened hot metal is ejected on to the operator. The slug of metal that the line of matrices forms is then rotated 280 degrees, ejected by a rod and trimmed by a set of knives.

Malic  molds, the hot gas.

The function that made the machine truly and visibly efficient comes next when the matrices and spacebands, having discharged the hardened metal lines of type, are recycled back to their original positions by the action of a grooved distributor rod that acts like a key on the serrations of the matrices, dropping one when the grooves match the serrations.

Malic Molds
9 Malic Molds, 1914-15
Oil, lead wire, lead foil on between two glass plates

The Linotype operators interviewed in the film had developed strong attachments to the device. The machine was not easy to operate and maintain, but when handled well performed brilliantly. A claim is made about a man rapidly tapping away on the keyboard, that this is the fastest operator alive. A lean man in his eighties, he plays the machine like a hurried concert pianist. He is, like many linotype operators, deaf.

In 1923 an accident completed the work. In transit to ___ the Large Glass broke. Duchamp declared the piece at last ‘unfinished’.

Other characters in the film, some who collected Linotype machines in order to save the parts, some who preserved or maintained a working machine, spoke of their respect and near adulation of the machine. For many of the machines still in existence its a short trip to the scrap yard. One owner has no choice but to bring his beloved machine to the scrap yard. He has to turn his back on the destruction that the camera facing him sees. Behind him mechanical claws grip the machine and repeatedly bounce it off the ground until it breaks into bits.

 

Etaoin Teeth
Etaoin Teeth

The Large Glass was finally ‘unfinished’ in 1923.

References:
The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even: A Typographic Version by Richard Hamilton of Marcel Duchamp’s Green Box
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The White Goddess
Octavio Paz

Category: Art, Design, Language

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