The Linotype at Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum

Over the past several weeks I’ve been spending Saturday mornings at the Mackenzie Printery and Newspaper Museum in Queenston, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. This museum is located in the historic house where William Lyon Mackenzie lived for a while and produced the Colonial Advocate which strongly critiqued the government of the time, fomenting unrest which eventually led to the Upper Canada Rebellion and establishment of a more representative government in Upper Canada (what is now Ontario). The building is maintained, and tours and guides are provided, by the Niagara Parks Commission, and a separate group owns and maintains the majority of the printing equipment located there. I’ve been a member of this group for many years, and recently I became a director.

Amidst their collection is a model 5 Linotype linecasting machine.

This machine would have typically been used by newspapers and magazines to produce the type required for printing. The machine produces “slugs”, which are bars of type metal with one line of the text to be printed in raised form along one edge. This technology sped up printing considerably when compared to hand-set type, where individual letters had to be collected to form the lines. Controlled by a keyboard, the machine collects a line of forms for the individual letters (called matrices), and when the line of matrices is ready, they are moved to a station where molten type metal is injected taking a cast of the matrices and forming the slug. Then matrices are then each returned to the proper slot in the matrix magazine.

When no longer needed, the slugs are melted down to be re-used.

Originally printing would have been done directly from the slugs, though the number of clear copies that could be obtained was limited as the printing surface would gradually get smashed down. Later, a process called stereotyping was used to make copies of the entire set page, so when the stereotype had worn down, another fresh one could be made. The stereotype mould could also be used to make cylindrical printing plates for use on rotary roll-fed presses which where faster than sheet-fed flatbed pressed. Even later on, the type would be printed just once, then photographically reproduced as an offset plate (a quite different printing process) which was much more durable. Eventually computers could be used to make the printed copy for reproduction onto an offset plate, and now the plates can be made directly by the computer, making the Linotype (and other letterpress printing processes) obsolete.

The particular Linotype held by the museum has not been operated for a couple of years, mostly due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sitting idle is not good for these machines because lubricants dry up and become sticky, or just drain away from where they belong, and dust accumulates. There are also 2 or 3 years’ worth of finger-poking to work out, because the machine is fully accessible to museum visitors, and the guides can’t always watch what all the visitors are doing…

On Saturday mornings I’ve been coming in to try to get the machine working again. Just this weekend I had it cycling (more or less) properly. I had the pot cold so it was not actually casting anything, but it was going through all the motions properly. It is still not perfect, as it dropped a matrix a couple of times, but that should just be a bit more adjustment and lubrication.

One of these days I’ll be brave enough to fire up the pot and actually try casting some slugs.

Unfortunately, due to staffing shortages, the Niagara Parks Commission will not have any open hours at the Museum for the remainder of this season. Members like myself still have access to work on, or use, the equipment, but it will not be open to the general public.

Meanwhile, the members are getting ready for the Marshville Heritage Festival (September 3rd, 4th & 5th, 2022 in Wainfleet, Ontario), where they will have some presses on display running, and memorabilia (and surplus letterpress items) on sale to support the Museum.

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