Typesetter who worked for Witness gives a behind the scenes look at a lost art

By Bud MacFarlane

Special to The Witness

The late Bud MacFarlane was a typesetter for The Witness for many years. A longer version of the article below was first published in 1993. In it, MacFarlane reflects on a trade that was essential to the production of this publication for generations.

It was mid 1953 when I started working in the printing trade at The Telegraph Herald commercial print shop. My first job was to make up the ads to go into The Witness, which was done at The Telegraph Herald in those days. The trade in those days was very interesting. Small type as used in newspapers, etc. were set on what was called linotype. To see a linotype run and watch all that happens from the time a letter first slides into the carriage until it gets back into the magazine it came out of was just about unbelievable that anyone could have thought up such a machine. It had 90 keys with lower case characters on the left side, upper case characters on the right side and numbers, punctuation etc. in the center keys.

When you pressed the keys, mats would slide down into the carriage. When the carriage was full, it would slide over an elevator that would drop down between two jaws that would hold the mats while a metal pot containing melted lead (heated to 550 degrees) would move forward to squirt the lead through an opening in a mold to cast a lead slug which would form the word upside down and backwards.

After the slug was cast, a second elevator would pick up the mats you had just used and elevate them up to the top/back of the linotype where they would be carried across two screws with a combination bar in the center of the screws where they would drop back into the slot they had come out of when you hit that key position. There were two rows of seven little notches forming a V on each mat with different combinations filed away on each different character so that they would drop into the right slot on the back of the linotype.

It didn’t take very long and you could read upside down and backwards as fast as you could read normally. Looking at a newspaper in the mirror looks the same as when we would read metal slugs …

After working with ads for a while you advanced to the makeup of The Witness. There were metal tables on wheels with a chase on top that was a little larger than a newspaper page. You would start by putting in the head for the story, then putting in the type starting in the left column close to you and working away from you (as it would look if you looked at a page in a mirror).

When jobs were ready to be run on a printing press (a book for example) the pages would have to be “locked up” in just the right position in a metal case … In 1965, the Telegraph Herald built a commercial printing plant. Later … The Witness was moved back to the Telegraph Herald where it was done in in cold type.

Cold type is computer printing (typing) which you put through a processor and the output is perfect. Hot type is the old days of linotype … where you got your hands full of ink and would maybe pinch a finger once in a while. I think most people who worked back in those days will never lose their love for that type of printing. Cold type had its advantages too …

In 1977, The Witness decided to buy equipment so they could do the paper themselves. I applied for the job and started working at for The Witness at that time. I’ve enjoyed my years with The Witness and also the years I worked with the Telegraph Herald organization.

Cover image: The late former staff member Bud MacFarlane, working on Compugraphic equipment at The Witness office in 1977. (Witness archives photo)