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Pieces of our Past - The original Observer linotype printing machine

By Kevin Heimbigner

Published on February 21, 2012 12:01AM

<p>The Linotype printing machine, displayed now at the Columbia
Pacific Heritage Museum, was used by the Chinook Observer from 1900
until the early 1970s.</p>

The Linotype printing machine, displayed now at the Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum, was used by the Chinook Observer from 1900 until the early 1970s.

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ILWACO — The O’Neils had news ink flowing in their veins. Jimmie’s dad and several brothers were publishers in Washington and in years to come Jimmie’s son Wayne, daughter-in-law Frances, daughter Carol, granddaughter Peggy, and grandson Dan all were key cogs in producing the Chinook Observer newspaper. 

The Observer’s linotype machine prominently displayed in the Village Gallery of Columbia Pacific Heritage Museum (CPHM) is a Mergenthaler Linotype Co. model 5 #15131. It was the primary machine used for eight decades by the Chinook Observer.  In 1900, the Observer was started by George Hibbert and Frank Gaither in Chinook and in 1938 James O’Neil moved the Chinook Observer to Long Beach, where it kept the original name and where it has been ever since. 

J.M. “Jimmie” O’Neil and co-worker Lee Marsh finally said goodbye to the linotype machine in the early 1970s and it has been on loan at CPHM since. In 1963, Wayne O’Neil took over as editor of the Observer and he and wife Frances worked there until 1983.

“We consider the newspaper public property. The plant (and linotype machine) is privately owned, but the newspaper belongs to the people. The editor’s obligation first, last and always is to see that this publication is handled for the best interests of the majority and may God help us all to live up that standard,” Jimmie O’Neil stated in the first Observer issue he put out.  

Linotype users typically took information from rough drafts and proofreaders were expert at reading print in reverse. (Try reading a book in a mirror to see their dilemma.) “I used to read the pages upside down. It made reading the reverse type easier for me. After awhile you got used to it,” Frances O’Neil recollects.

Jimmie O’Neil’s early days of being the only newsman and on call around the clock meant that he was so short-handed he often had to exclude the copy writer and proofreader. He would do all the composing at the 90-character keyboard and put his work “to bed” himself. He did this until his first vacation in 1952, after 14 years at the linotype.  “A whole week off!” he exclaimed.

O’Neil’s editorials were often to the point and met serious local concerns. He wrote in Aug. 14, 1953, “One bad accident averted at 101 - Peninsula Rd. intersection through the use of a blinker would be money well spent.” Two decades later his son, Wayne, would write a similar piece about a school child killed at the same intersection that now features a seeing-eye stop light.

“Sometimes we’d drop off the newspapers at the post office after midnight on Thursdays so they’d be ready to mail. The Observer office was our second home,” Frances O’Neil related.

Linotype is a spinoff of the words “line of type.” The keyboard had separate keys for lower case and capital letters, and for characters, punctuation and spaces.  The linotype machine was invented in Baltimore by German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler. In 1891, the New York Tribune was among the first to use the linotype method for its books and daily newspaper. The machine was still in wide use into the 1970s for magazines, posters and newspapers. 

The linotype assembled a row of matrices (brass letter and character molds), then cast the entire line of reverse text in a molten (about 600 degrees Fahrenheit) alloy of 85 percent lead, 11 percent antimony and 4 percent tin that produced one long line of type called a “slug.”  This process was known as “hot metal” typesetting.

The slug cooled and was trimmed to the desired dimensions and then dropped into a galley tray, which held the text lines. When an entire page layout was complete, the filled galley tray then went to the proofreader and then to the printer. If there were spaces between the matrices, the molten alloy could spurt through the gaps possibly injuring the operator. Thus blank matrices for spaces had to be added. The linotype machine gave off toxic fumes from the molten lead-based alloy so the area needed to be properly ventilated.

CPHM is located at 115 SE Lake Street in Ilwaco. Its hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. The museum is free on Thursdays. CPHM can be contacted by calling 642-3446.



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