Yet one more nostalgic look back at the old Mergenthaler

Memories of the old Vidette press

Sep 28th, 2017   Printers’ Ink and Presses – the Vidette “back shop” back in the day


In the 1950s, former Vidette editor Chapin Collins introduced his son to the “back shop” of the Vidette, but only when the shop was closed and quiet. The large, open J-shaped room, coated with decades of printers’ ink-based grime, was chockablock with machines, intriguing to young eyes when at rest, but spellbinding when running.

On Thursday afternoons, screeches, rattles, clatters, curses, and a rhythmic din replaced Sunday’s quiet as the nearly 20-foot-long, eight-foot-high Miehle two revolution flatbed press turned words molded in pounds and pounds of lead type to the printed page. Accompanying the big press, with its own rhythm and mechanical wizardry, was another machine slicing and dicing each 3 feet by 4 feet printed sheet into a newspaper.

How did they get words from manual typewriter to newspaper page? Start with a Mergenthaler Linotype machine, an almost indescribable device. Measuring about six feet in all directions, it had a keyboard with far more keys than a typewriter, levers, big irregularly shaped wheels, a long metal arm going up and down, and God knows how many other moving parts. The linotype melted a two foot lead ingot (620 degrees) and then shaped the molten metal into “slugs,” each containing a single line of text, one or two columns wide, and about an eighth-inch thick. Thousands of slugs made up each week’s paper.

Skilled printers arranged these slugs into pages, the type interspersed with pictures, headlines, and large type ads that were mostly set by hand, letter by letter. The printer tightened each page into a frame and laid four pages on the bed of the Miehle.

It’s late Thursday morning. Showtime. The four pages are locked in place. The pressman climbs to a perch way up in the air toward the middle of the big press. He pushes a button on the Miehle and the behemoth, silent for a week, screeches to life. Parts begin to move. A two-foot diameter roller located in the middle of the press begins to revolve. The press bed where the pages sit starts to move forward and back under the spinning cylinder. As the bed travels forward, the pages on it are inked. On its return trip, the revolving cylinder rolls the blank sheet of newsprint against the inked pages, producing a printed page. From his catbird seat, the pressman flicks the first sheet of paper from the stack before him. Grippers attached to the cylinder snatch the paper. The noisy, synchronized chaos begins.

The real excitement starts when the cylinder spits out the now printed sheet with the help of a marvelously named mechanism, called the “shoo fly.” The cylinder feeds the printed sheet to a set of moving bands, which pass it, almost floating on air, to slender metal rods between two long folding and unfolding arms about four feet apart which guide the printed sheet to the end of the press. As the arms withdraw, a set of metal fingers between them opens allowing the sheet to float gently to rest, soon to be joined by hundreds of others. But in addition to the metal fingers, the arms also held small gas flames to help dry the ink. Each sheet passes over the flames as the arms pull back. From time to time, the synchronized process would stumble, a sheet snag on the metal fingers … and catch fire. If no-one noticed the incipient conflagration, another printed sheet will join the fiery party. And so on.

If that weren’t enough, as the press progresses, the floor becomes littered with potential fuel for the fire — spoiled sheets snatched from the press before they could ignite.

Working two high school summers as a printer’s devil let me witness all this, seeing the men working around the press calmly drop whatever they were doing, grab fire extinguishers, avert a catastrophe, and go back to work. Routine. The Vidette never burned down and, to my memory, never even called the fire department.

Unlike presses seen in old “stop the presses” movies that drew newsprint continuously off a huge roll and printed both sides simultaneously, the Miehle could print only one side of one sheet at a time. To print an eight page paper, each sheet had to go through the press twice. So at the end of the first run, the pressman returned the printed sheets to their starting point, flipped them over, restacked them, and ran them through the press a second time. Adding a color to a page meant yet another run, so colors seldom appeared in The Vidette. (Secret: Way back before my time, I think in the ‘30s, The Vidette included a section of four color comics, printed elsewhere.)

As the pages from the second run come off the press, another piece of equipment joins the party — the folder. Now the noise reaches its zenith as the folder adds its rat-a-tat clatter to the rhythmic roar of the big Miehle. On good days, The Vidette was printed, folded, addressed, and delivered to the post office by late afternoon. On bad days, well, my dad would be late for dinner.

The masterpieces of mechanical engineering of The Vidette’s back shop are museum pieces now, dinosaurs made extinct by new printing techniques and computers. Gone, but for anyone who saw them operate, not forgotten.

(Thanks to Tony Durier of the Jarrold Printing Museum of Norwich, England for help in writing this piece.)

Bill Collins is the son of former Vidette Editor Chapin Collins.

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