The tap-dancing typesetter of ETAOIN SHRDLU



0003778800-01-3_20141110Carl Schlesinger died on November 9, 2014. His family described him in his obituary in New Jersey’s Record/Herald as…”a vibrant man who loved the printed word, the New York Times, tap dance, music, writing rhymes, union and printing history, and entertaining audiences.”  

You’ve probably never heard of Carl, but to a considerable number of typophiles and type historians he personified both the love of old printing methods and the intelligent acceptance of the transition to new ones. “Carl was a fascinating link to a different time and technology. And somewhat unusual in that he adapted to computer typesetting,” says Joel Mason, former president of the American Printing History Association.

This was poignantly demonstrated at the New York Times, where Carl worked for a total of thirty-five years: On Saturday night, July 1, 1978,  the NYT published the last newspaper printed via Linotype, a hot-metal typesetting process; the very next day Linotype was definitively over when the newspaper switched to computer-generated cold type.

lino9260 The night was documented in the award-winning twenty-nine-minute film called “Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu“— meaning farewell to a string of letters that represented the arrangement of keys on the old Linotype machines.

That singular night marked the end of nearly a hundred years of a particular convention in newspaper printing. In a way, Sunday, July 2, 1978 ushered in the digital age. The documentary became a classic, and Carl Schlesinger was the central character in the film.

Other Linotypists understood that their jobs were either disappearing or changing radically; Carl saw the demise of Linotype in a larger context of social change. There’s a nice line in his New York Times obit: “A loud century of men hammering out the news on big metal machines was giving way to the digital whisper of the future.”

Social change was a fact of life to Carl Schlesinger. He wasn’t a man who sat back and complacently punched a keyboard: He took time-outs from the Times for heading a printing program in Kenya and fund-raising for the Flying Doctors Service of East Africa; he turned his lifelong love of tap-dancing into the co-founding of the New York Committee to Celebrate National Tap Dance Day and he co-chaired the Tap Extravaganzas in New York for twenty years.

Carl was a union man and worked hard for the Typographical Union. He wrote two books on printing, one of them about Otto Mergenthaler, inventor of the Linotype. He was a storyteller, polymath, educator. He heard and loved percussion in the crash of Linotype, the click-click of computer keyboards, and the tap-tap-tap of dancing feet.

Laura Minor’s eulogy to her father was quoted in  “He once told me that he was never bored a minute in his life.”



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Many thanks to Joel Mason for saving Carl’s card and for sharing it with The Book Under Her Bed.



FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Magers & Quinn Booksellers, Minneapolis, MN

Bonnie Slotnick Cookbooks, New York, NY

The Bookworm, Edwards, CO



Read 4 comments

  1. Yesterday I had a chance to see a copy of “Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu“ on our trusty VCR. Although the print was quite dark and grainy I found it to be a moving experience. The contrast between Linotype and the electronic typesetting system that replaced it was quite stark. Today, this transformation is routinely referred to as “disruptive technology.” It certainly was for those New York Times typesetters in that dark, noisy composing room where for nearly a hundred years Linotype reigned supreme. Carl Schlesinger’s narration and explanation of how both systems worked was also fascinating. Perhaps, ironically, the new system was short-lived with the introduction of even more powerful digital page makeup and typesetting systems. Not surprisingly, today there is still strong interest in preserving both Linotype and Ludlow composition systems. In September 1911 members of the New York Chapter of the American Printing History Association (APHA) were treated to a demonstration of both these machines at The Gothic Press in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. So, history lives on in a small way. Might one even say, “Welcome Back, Etaoin Shrdlu?”

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