Monumental changes

Published 4:15 pm Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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It occurred to me recently — though certainly not for the first time — just how much technology has changed this business.

Sitting on a filing cabinet here in the office is my “Palm Tab Royal,” the first and only typewriter I ever owned, and the machine on which I learned this trade. Don’t blame the Royal if I didn’t learn it well. It wasn’t the typewriter’s fault.

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That durable olive drab instrument was old when I bought it in the 1960’s. It was either a piece of military surplus or a duplicate of the typewriters that accompanied soldiers and sailors around the world for a couple decades following World War II. For the uninitiated, it’s tab key could be operated with the palm of your hand — hence the name. It was a marvel of engineering and built like a piece of industrial machinery, virtually indestructible. There’s probably enough metal in three or four of those old Royals to build the body of a modern automobile.

Journalists — and, I might add secretaries, Navy yeomen and anybody else who had to crank out paperwork in those days — used typewriters, but the transition was already underway. I was just a little later than most to begin using the marvelous electric variety.

We wrote stories on “second sheets,” a poor quality paper that came in either off-white or canary yellow. We used reams of the stuff, and reporters prided themselves in being able to whack a ream across the edge of a desk and bust it open like a ripe watermelon, thus saving the time of unwrapping it.

The story would be typed double-spaced and corrections made by typing over errors with an X. When the story needed to be rearranged, a line gauge (steel ruler) was used to tear off a paragraph which was then pasted into its new location with rubber cement.

Further editing was done with a copy pencil, a large-diameter and very soft-leaded instrument. The soft lead made it readable and prevented it from tearing the flimsy paper that was being edited.

Collectively, a journalist thus had a typewriter, a stack of copy pencils, a gum eraser, a glue pot, an AP or UPI style book and a dictionary.

Using editing marks which today look like Sanskrit to a new generation of journalist, a story was tweaked until the writer and an editor were satisfied, and the finished product was then sent to a typesetter. Fifty years ago, that meant a linotype operator, a tradesman who meticulously retyped the story on an even more marvelous machine which set up lines of lead type to be built into an entire “galley” of type.

Then, in what now seems like the blink of an eye, it all changed. The industry drove the revolution. Larger newspapers were pushed into it by trade unions demanding more and more for their skilled workers, and smaller papers begged for relief because of the shortage of such skilled artisans in their communities. Manufacturers responded and the phototypesetter was invented.

With this new marvel, a person with no more than good typing skills could replace the linotype operator, and the finished product was a sheet of photographic paper rather than a 75-pound pile of lead for every newspaper page.

Soon, the larger papers were buying computers that miraculously could be tied together through monstrous computers in climate-controlled rooms. And soon after that, the desktop computer made access to this incredible technology available to all of us.

Had we faced something like this newspaper’s annual Living Guide on old Royals and second sheets, it probably wouldn’t have been published, and certainly not with the staff now available to do the work. The efficiency of computers encourages us to do things we just wouldn’t have dreamed possible several decades ago.

But there is a down side. When copy was typed, pasted and otherwise edited in such a laborious fashion, then turned over to the composing room for the very labor intensive task of typesetting, it was to everyone’s advantage to make sure it was error-free from the outset. If errors were found on a final proof, they had to be sent back to the linotype operator, and then to an equally skilled compositor who put the galleys of type together. Correcting a mistake thus meant a lot of labor, and when too many errors showed up, somebody was going to scream long before the reader did.

They were what we like to recall as the “good old days,” but few of us would want to go back to them.