I was trying to figure out the not-very-intuitive interface for presetting stations on my car radio, and remembered a car radio we had when I was a kid: it could “memorize” the frequencies of selected stations in an entirely mechanical manner. IIRC, you pulled out a setting button when the radio was on a station you wanted to “remember,” and when you later wanted to return to that station, you simply pushed the appropriate button in. (I believe this feature was mechanized via clamps gripping a continuous string that drove the tuning mechanism.)

Which got me thinking: there was once a whole range of cunning mechanical devices that performed memory, logic, and arithmetic tasks that would now be done with a microprocessor or some other form of digital logic. Things that come to mind include railway signal interlocking systems, Linotype and other typesetting machines, mechanical calculators, mechanical analog computers, and ship and aircraft autopilots.

Googling around, I found that there is actually a feature film about the Linotype:  a bit about the history of typesetting, the development of the Linotype machine, the basics of how it works, some of the social/economic implications, and much nostalgia from former Linotype operators (and also from younger operators, who are working to keep the trade/technology alive.) The film is available free to those who have an Amazon Prime membership.

This video explains how the Linotype works and then goes into considerable detail about the mechanism.

Regarding the social/economic implications, the first video notes that while Linotype reduced typesetting labor requirements by a factor of 6:1, it also drove an explosion in the volume of printed material, and a concurrent increase in literacy, and wound up actually increasing the number of people involved in the printing trade. I would also suspect that the high capital cost of Linotype equipment was one factor that drove a consolidation of the newspaper industry toward a small number of highly dominant papers in each city.

One place where a Linotype can be seen in operation today is the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which has a machine which is periodically activated.


11 thoughts on “ETAOIN SHRDLU”

  1. Less glamorous maybe, but no less important, was the change during our lifetimes from hand analysis, hand design, hand drafting and hand machining of systems to computer aided engineering, computer aided design, computer numerically controlled (CAE/CAD/CNC) manufacturing.

    3-D printing will combine CAD with printing technology and material science. However, unless the CAD model is purchased from or created by someone who has done the engineering analysis – electrical, mechanical, thermal, vibration, strain, stress, timing, logic, etc. – that part will be missing. That’s not to say it won’t work, merely that you’re on your own.

    There was a video I saw a few year ago of a circuit board assembly factory in Utah. The entire factory was automated. Imagine a control room staffed by a few people in rotating shifts, a receiving and shipping department, and a few people wandering about doing miscellaneous tasks. Everything else was machinery or storage. Parts were retrieved, assembled and soldered, with finished boards tested, packaged and then stored, all by machines. There was an eerie, austere, 2001-ish feel to the quiet, computer controlled efficiency of the place.

  2. ” electrical, mechanical, thermal, vibration, strain, stress, timing, logic, etc”….yes, even professional engineering & manufacturing organizations quite often create products that turn out to have unsuspected failure problems, and people making things at home, whether using 3-D printing technology or otherwise, need to be aware that something fitting geometrically is no guarantee that it will work reliably. 3-D printing a critical component of your car’s steering linkage, without considerable analysis and testing, would not be a very smart thing to do!

  3. Amateur designers with 3D printers will make mistakes. But among the amateurs will be talented enthusiasts, some with engineering training, who will correct the mistakes of incompetent manufacturers. In some cases they might get manufacturers to correct problems the manufacturers currently will not — perhaps out of fear of legal liability from acknowledging the existence of a problem — deal with.

  4. Ah, the madness of Otto Mergenthaler! My grandfather owned a Linotype shop way back, and sometimes I wonder how he’d react to the typesetting and printers we have now. A friend of my father’s passed his print shop to his son some years ago, and they finally decommissioned their functional but increasingly temperamental machine. I’ve done some repair for them, but only seen the beast itself.

    In my own projects, I generally have the luxury of overbuilding my parts, which saves on the various analyses, though I do have the engineering to do most of them if need be. I do now have a 3D printer and hope to do some interesting parts and prototypes.

    I didn’t know quite what to expect from the title; something wordy or ciphery, given the character frequencies.

  5. Those old car radio buttons just got you close. You still had to fine tune.

    That was probably inherent in the analog technology.

    We were constantly adjusting the tuning and antenna configurations.

    People put aluminum foil on TV rabbit ears.

    Some people put a potato on their car antenna.

  6. ETAOIN SHRDLU is the character set used on the first 2 columns of the Linotype keyboard, selected based on letter frequencies in English. The operators would sometimes run their fingers down the columns to mark a type slug as erroneous, given that there was no such thing as a backspace key.

  7. Yes, mechanical analog computers are very interesting…used for military applications, but also for general scientific work. I have a post on this topic queued up.

  8. My father was in the business of juke boxes, he invented the most common device for playing records in them, and pin ball machines. Had he been educated he might have been a good engineer but he left school at 15. I spent my early childhood with him at work and watched most of the work he did. He did very well in the juke box business until after the War when the Mafia got interested in it and he had to move on. First there were the shuffleboard games, then the “roll down” games with wooden balls that you still see in arcades, and finally pin ball games.

    Eventually, TV killed off that business in taverns and he opened a golf range. I spent summers there when I was in high school. At one time we had had a juke box, several pin ball games and several slot machines in our basement party room. I wish I had them now.

  9. David Foster Says: ETAOIN SHRDLU is the character set used on the first 2 columns of the Linotype keyboard, selected based on letter frequencies in English. The operators would sometimes run their fingers down the columns to mark a type slug as erroneous, given that there was no such thing as a backspace key.
    Assistant Village Idiot Says:Ah, I wondered if ETAOIN SHRDLU was a Lovecraft character. There were analog computers too, most notably in artillery, I think.

    David is correct as to the source — it is the nominal frequency ordering of the first 12 letters in a vast swathe of American English text.

    Note: I’ve seen minor variants, no doubt this ties somewhat to the original sources: ETAONS HIRDLU or something like it happens to be a common variant. But that one appears to be the dominant one found when you research the topic.

    I was told many, many years ago (ca. 1974, in FLA) that it was also the name of a mythical “printer’s demon” responsible for typos in re-entering text for printing. One of you history buffs might like to see if there’s anything more reliable, reference-wise, to that claim, and/or search for its origination if it is verifiable…

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