‘Click, click, click’: Capturing the time of hot-metal composition in the late nineteenth-century press

[this is a proposal for a conference called ‘Capturing Ephemerality: Praxeological Modes of Fixing Journal Literature’ to be held at the Philipps University Marburg 24-26 August 2022. Once my current book is complete I’m thinking of doing some work on hot metal printing. This paper will be my first look at what’s out there]

In my paper I consider how late nineteenth-century periodicals and newspapers captured the new processes of hot metal composition.  All letterpress printing is ephemeral, type and furniture locked up just long enough to print the edition before being redistributed and used for something else.  However, whereas in traditional letterpress printing compositors worked in a condition of scarcity, setting type from cases with a limited number of sorts, hot metal composition took place in a condition of limitless excess as sorts were cast anew for each job.  In each case the printing matrix was ephemeral, but the hot metal process challenged the idea that the elemental units of printing were the letters of the alphabet.  Instead of sorts in the case, metal manifestations of the constituent units of language, there was only illegible molten metal.

The pages of newspapers and periodicals are both the products of the printing process and records of it.  My paper takes this double focus – the page as material record of the process; the text as description of it – and uses this to consider how hot metal composition was introduced to readers.  I outline how images were used to make the process meaningful.  I look at how human agency was represented as reconfigured.  For instance, in many accounts of the process compositors became machine like, providing input, while the machines seemingly regulated themselves.  I attend to the role of the hot metal itself, now rendered the primordial form of language.  And finally, I note how many articles remark on the distinctive sound of the machines, the ‘click, click, click’ of their operation so evocative of a ticking clock.

In my previous work I have considered the interplay between fixity and change that characterises periodical publication.  I have also discussed how periodicals conceive of themselves as both ephemeral and archival forms.  In this paper, I turn to how the press captured this latest transformation of its mode of production.  The newness of the process meant it was newsworthy, interesting to readers in the here and now.  As it was also the final stage in the industrialisation of print, it merited capturing in a way suitable for those readers yet to come.