September 3

When compositors first became automated, they were anxious to exhibit their prowess in the operation of Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine by competing with one another in contests of speed typesetting, much as they had done when the hand type-stickers ruled the composing rooms. The machine-age swifts made appearances at county and state fairs and of course at national expositions. On this day in 1904 at the St. Louis Fair, J.F. O’Sullivan demonstrated his virtuosity by setting 6,800 ems of 12-point type solid to a twenty-one pica measure, in one hour at the keyboard of the “Merg.’

In this performance O’Sullivan employed all the fingers of both hands in the fashion of a piano player and modestly stated that he frequently wished that nature had been kind enough to endow him with even more fingers and thumbs so that he could give the lino “a run for its money.”

A few years later one Charles A. Nichols, an operator employed by the Salt Lake Herald, claimed the world’s championship for Linotype operators by setting 106,300 ems of nonpareil (6-point) in a period of seven hours and fifty-two minutes. This accomplishment occurred during regular working hours, and the slugs which he produced were used in an edition of the newspaper.

Nichols, in his remarkable feat, corrected his own typos, which were primarily machine errors brought about by the difficulty of running out of sorts when the matrix channels of the machine’s magazine could not be refilled quickly enough by the distribution system. The machine used had been in constant operation in the composing room of the Herald for thirteen years. During the elapsed time of the nimble-fingered Nichols’ redoubtable performance, twenty minutes were consumed in machine repair, ten of which were expended in the replacement of a cam. The machine was speeded to nine revolutions per minute, and the machinist proudly noted that even that pace was exceeded at times.

The matter set by Nichols measured 340 inches. Over 190 pounds of metal were needed to set the 4,088 lines of type. The copy was typewritten Sunday matter, with a few takes of reprint. Operator Nichols labored under one difficulty which presumably interfered with his opportunity to establish even more astonishing feats at the keyboard, and that was an inability to use the index finger of his right hand. This might have embarrassed an operator of that period, but in today’s composing rooms he could readily have held his “sit” with one hand in his pocket.

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