An old 100-key keyboard & salute to a bygone era
BY H.V. O'BRIEN
Publisher of Eastland County Newspapers
You probably know that the Mergenthaler Linotype Machine was state-of-the-art typesetting equipment for the printing industry until computers came on scene.
This is about a little Cajun who was an expert for many years on that machine, at least up into the '50s. His name was Brickeen; never knew his first name and everybody but me called him Mr. Brick, or just Brick, depending how close you were to him. Few were that close.
A small, dark, wiry man in little wire-rimmed glasses that sat on his nose at an angle. He could look over, through and under them as needed. Usually in baggy dark pants and long-sleeve shirt, buttoned at the neck and cuffs.
At first sight he probably looked like a small child sitting at the giant mechanical marvel of a machine with all of its bells and whistles: cams, magazines full of fonts, cranks, gears, molten lead crucible, levers, elevators and assorted other devices that turned that lead into individual sticks of printable type — when all went well. It often didn't.
He must have been in his high 70s, maybe 80, but an absolute genius in making that machine turn out perfect line after line of a surface that would eventually put ink, (think "stamp-pad"), onto paper of all sizes; small and in this case, giant rolls that turned out thousands of newspapers, day after day.
The keyboard, a marvel — 100+ keys, one for each character, calling for each individual letter, numbers or punctionary marks — lower case on the left, capitals on the right, all else in the middle.
It was often called the "ETAOIN" machine because these most-used letters were all grouped in a top to bottom row at the extreme left, with the space bar to the immediate left. And that's where an operator's hands generally were kept over, going right as needed to hit caps, number and punctuation marks. To hold a key down would empty the magazine of that letter. Key touch was ultra-sensitive.
All of Brickeen's fingers (I just never could call him Brick) were bent, gnarled and permanently in a curve from age and from his daily eight-hour keyboarding shifts. Less than basic "fingers on home keys" — it was more of a "hover" over the extreme left area close to the lower case keys and spacebar, with movement to the right for caps, etc.
(It was then, as I saw his cupped hands, that I made a vow and habit each night before falling asleep, to spread my fingers and flatten my hands hoping they would not become like Mr. B's.)
He always called me "boy" and we were good friends since we had both come out of the Cisco newspaper office where I had learned the typesetting basics. He was especially warm to my being an operator because to him, I was just a whippersnapper of a kid, still wet behind the ears.
Actually the skill had proven natural to me because apparently I had some inate level of eye-hand coordination from the beginning, as I was working my way through college, having started as a "printer's devil" — sweeping-out, pouring pigs, etc.
At the Abilene Reporter-News in '51 I had moved from the tape-punching, typewriter TeleType keyboard and eventually to the correction Linotype mill which was directly across from Mr. B's giant crap mill (where he set big type for all size ads). Proofreaders unscrambled sheets of proofs from the other automatic tape-fed Linotype machines and it was my job to make necessary corrections as they had marked — sometimes it took a virtual reset to get copy straightened out and printable.
Then I found myself on the agate machine where all major and minor league baseball box scores (hits, runs, errors, etc.) were listed in minute detail, all in six-point (very small) type. To add to the complexity, the data was recorded in half-column chunks with one team's record per side. West Coast games were always late and floor men printers had to build the boxes from my type.
Foreman Bill Maroney, a Ranger native, moved me up the operator level to the second crap mill (for ad creation). That was my next spot, right next to Mr. B, who taught me the complicated multi-magazine handling and split-slug, overhang techniques necessary for turning out slugs that floor men tied into multi-sized printing blocks, which eventually wound up on pages for your morning and/or afternoon paper, as was the case then in the two-a-day era.
Typesetters followed the mantra of "always follow the copy, even if it goes out a window." It often did.
Mr. B always got copy from one ad layout man who couldn't write very well, but he must have been a good salesman, because he sure turned in a lot of copy to be set. On a regular basis we would hear a streak of choice typical Louisiana words and Mr. B would come over to me to help figure out what was written and supposed to be set.
Alas, my Korean War draft board number eventually came up and when I got back Mr. B was gone.
It's hard to lose a friend, and you've learned more about an old machine and old man than you probably wanted to know, but this was also a tribute to a grand old man, so much a part of a bygone era.