In 1944, at age 12, I took over a paper route from a friend. It was the first of four jobs I had at the New London Day while in school: a paper route, a job in the pressroom, and two different jobs in the circulation department.
Three of us who worked in the circulation department walked to the Day after school each day. We arrived well before the press run, so I was free to roam around and see how the printed paper came into being.
The first thing that caught my eye was the linotype machine, a very large machine well over seven feet tall and three feet wide. It was always warm over near that linotype machine because it contained a vat of molten metal. The operator sat at a large keyboard with many more keys on it than ordinary keyboards. I used to watch as he typed, listening to a quiet “clink” inside the machine each time he struck a key. Then, when he struck a special key, there would be four more clinks, and a still hot line of bright metal type would slide into a tray face up as the operator calmly typed the next line.
I learned that as the operator hit each key a tiny mold for a letter, space, comma, period, or whatnot slid into place inside the machine. Then, when he hit that special key, hot molten metal poured into the molds, creating a line of type. It cooled and was sent standing face up into a tray as each tiny mold automatically went back where it came from and was reused.
I have no idea how many slugs had to be created before an entire tray was sent upstairs to the composing room where the pages were put together. Why don’t I know? Hey! Those folks up there in the composing room were not the calmest group in the world, so I avoided asking questions. I learned by watching as they ran around in circles putting together page-sized trays called “forms.”
Headlines and ads were set by hand. Metallic copies of photos or images were placed in the forms with the text. The form was “locked,” or clamped tightly together, ink was applied with a roller, and a proof was pulled, read, and — sometimes! — approved. If so, they cleaned the page and ran it through a machine that created a hard surfaced, reverse image, paper maché copy of the page under steam heat and very high pressure.
Many times down in the pressroom I watched as the thin, hard-surfaced paper maché sheet came down a conveyor belt and was placed in a steel mold which turned out a three-quarter inch thick semi-circular plate made of lead, tin, copper, and antimony. Once planed and trimmed as needed, it was clamped onto the rollers in the press, along with many others.
When all the plates were in place a bell rang. The press began to roll. In minutes, printed, cut, and folded newspapers were spilling out of a thundering press and speeding up to the circulation department on a conveyor belt made out of long, thin, coil springs.
The presses are much the same today, but everything else I described to you, except the printing and composing are no longer needed. Text and photos, now in electronic format, are etched into a thin aluminum plate by ultraviolet light. The plates are then wrapped onto the rollers of the press and the printing begins. Bingo! Done!