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In 1951, as a gawky teen barely out of high school, I became an apprentice printer in the hot-lead "composing room" of the Charleston Daily Mail newspaper in West Virginia.
Back then, master "journeyman" printers typed on Linotype machines that dropped small letter molds into slots where molten lead was injected into them to produce lines of type called "slugs." Slugs were assembled in galleys, then put into newspaper page frames called "chases" on rolling tables called "turtles." Finally, fibrous mats were compressed against the type and put into curved molds where another dose of molten lead made round plates for the press.
Typewritten stories from the newsroom below arrived in a pulley basket through a hole in the floor.
My job was an early step toward automation. I ran a half-dozen special Linotypes that had no human typists, but used ticker-tape to trigger keys and make galleys of type.
In the 1950s, printers were top craftsmen, earning more than news reporters.
Nonetheless, as an eager adolescent, I began to relish the notion of being a reporter. (I thought it would be exciting, and impress girls.) So I volunteered to work without pay in the Daily Mail newsroom as a trainee on my days off. In 1953, The Charleston Gazette offered a full-time news job, and I've been at it ever since.
In 1961, to save money, the Gazette and Daily Mail merged mechanical operations, requiring only one press, one fleet of trucks, one composing room, one ad sales staff, etc. Downsizing eliminated various jobs.
A decade later, a strange thing happened: All the remaining printers went on strike for reasons I couldn't fathom. My old buddies from the print shop, picketing on sidewalks, confronted me with tears in their eyes. It choked me up. But the strike failed, and they lost their jobs. It was sad.
Later, I grasped what had happened: Printer unions could foresee the coming of "cold type" print on strips of photographic paper disgorged by electronic boxes. Eventually, Charleston newspapers converted to cold type, cutting and pasting print strips into full pages.
It marked the doom of hot-lead printers. Their high-paid careers were destroyed. Old Linotype machines were abandoned, along with galleys, chases, turtles and the rest of the hot-lead era.
Ever since, technology kept snowballing. Photocopiers made it easy to copy court documents and government records. Computers replaced clicking typewriters. Out-of-state news no longer arrived by clattering teletype machines but on computer screens. Cameras switched from film to digital, enabling photographers to transmit pictures from news scenes instead of rushing back to the darkroom. Arrival of the internet let reporters search a thousand sources quickly. Cold type was replaced by full electronics, and now huge screens assemble entire newspaper pages.
Here's a tidbit: Our newspaper once had satellite dishes on the roof. The Associated Press bureau was in the rear of the building. To send its news to our newsroom 50 feet away, the AP transmitted by phone line to an out-of-state center, which bounced reports off fixed-orbit satellites 22,000 miles above the equator. Then a West Coast AP operation bounced final reports off another space satellite, to be picked up by our roof dishes. Thus news traveled 88,000 miles almost instantly to move from the back of our building to the front. But now, internet linkage has bypassed roof dishes. Everything arrives and departs by broadband cable.
Technology is unstoppable. Improvements constantly make jobs easier and exterminate old tasks. Nobody today would return to hot-lead printing. Those careers are gone forever. The wipeout was cruel, but unavoidable.
The same fate befell coal miners. Around 1950, West Virginia had 125,000 pick-and-shovel miners, but digging machines erased most of them. Today, around 15,000 miners produce more coal and 110,000 families lost their livelihood.
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