Posts Tagged ‘vintage’

Beneath the nameplate, dies for each letter line up to cast lead type.

This is not the first line of an industrial joke. Among the countless mechanical miracles that came between the invention of moveable type and electronic publishing software like WordPress, there came something called the Linotype machine.

A linotype machine is the marriage of a typewriter keyboard with a metal casting plant: the operator would sit in front of the keys and type out lines, and the machine would cast them in hot lead for printing. A printer would take each line of freshly cast lead type from the machine, put it in a galley with more lines of cast words to be rolled with ink and printed on paper. Newspapers and all manner of publications once got into print this way.

The marriage of a typewriter with a casting plant.

Entire lines of text composed by a keyboard and cast as a single block of lead were a big step up from foundry type–which required the type setter to pick up individual letters one by one out of their compartments in a drawer  to spell out words. With a Linotype machine, the operator could essentially type out the entire lead plate.

To simply say what the machine does–casting words in lead as the operator types them–doesn’t begin to capture the mechanics contained therein. Zygote Press director Liz Maugans and I saw one in action while touring Madison Press, where Cleveland letterpress guru Frank and his partner continue to run a collection of machines dating to the early twentieth century.

Precisely cut teeth, like the ones that make the right key work in the right lock, help each type die find its proper place in the magazine.

Their shop is not a museum but a living repository of marvelous obsolescence–a couple of modest rooms in Lakewood, packed tight with printing presses, type, and collateral contraptions all as precise as they are old. They keep them in operating condition and use them for printing jobs still best done the old fashioned way: die cuts, folding, perforating, some sequential numbering.

But even in those rooms the Linotype machine is something special. In order to do its job it has to not only melt lead into a mold known as a die, but it has to be able to change the dies in real time, according to whatever words the operator types.

For this to be useful at a newspaper, the machine needs incredible capacity, all managed mechanically, without any help from a computer: It needs to manage not just the 26 letters of the alphabet, plus numbers and punctuation, but also italics, different sizes of headline type, and more.  Each individual letter is a separate die for casting lead. They need not only to line up in the proper order,

Drawers full of letter dies are tilted diagonally to help keep them in order.

but after casting a line, they need to return to their storage places in the “magazine” so that the next time the letters are typed, they are ready to fall in line again–in an order as infinitely variable as language itself.

To understand how this happens, it helps to think of those machines that sort coins: Kids have them as piggy banks. You drop a handful of mixed coins into the hopper, and the machine sorts all the pennies, nickles, dimes, and quarters in to their proper tubes. Of course  with coins, this can be done simply by size. With 26 lower case letters, 26 upper case letters, plus numbers and punctuation, it’s a bit more complicated.

The Linotype machine handles this massive sorting job a little bit like locks recognize their keys. To open a lock, it takes a key with teeth and grooves cut precisely in the right pattern to move the lock’s tumblers.

Type dies lined up for casting words.

The letter  dies in a linotype machine each have a set of teeth precisely cut into them, so that when they drop back  into the top of a magazine, they are gravity sorted into the right slot–the one that precisely lines up with their subtle patterns of teeth.

These are primitive processes compared to what goes on when we brush fingers across a touch-screen to move pictures or words, or go from one computerized function to another. But the physical reality of these mechanical machines makes them every bit as captivating as an I-pod. Plus, they sound better. It’s no little speaker rattling out that ka-chunk-a-chunk noise; it’s a massive convolution of brass and steel.


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One "High End" Peugeot from the '70s.

I walked up the wooden set of steps to get into Blazing Saddles Cyclery on a Saturday morning.   James Rychak and co-owner Travis Peebles run their used bike shop out of an old laundry building on the West side of Cleveland. I was there because I’d seen a Craigslist ad for “two high-end Peugeot frame from the ’70s.”

“We take old bikes and put them back into use so that they’re not what they were originally, but something tailored to the way the buyer rides,”  Rychak says.

Old bikes are more popular than ever right now, and Blazing Saddles is building a business on that market.

The appeal of old bicycles is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have it.  They are durable. They’re recycled. In an industry driven by a steady stream of shiny,  new, must-have products, they have endured.

My love of bicycles was born while I was in high school, at  the peak of the ‘70s bicycle boom.  At that time the finest bicycles in the world were still made of steel—hand crafted, chrome molybdenum or chrome manganese tubes braised together with curvaceous lugs. Craftsmen built the best of these frames one by one, and master frame builders put their names on them. These days the fastest bikes are made of carbon fiber, and new, hand made steel frames occupy a niche market, fed by folks like Cleveland’s Dan Polito, and Joe Bringheli. But that’s another story.

Circa 1982

I’ve owned a couple of fine steel bikes, and pedaled them tens of thousands of miles. My first serious racing bike was a Peugeot with a Reynolds 531 steel Frame and sew-up tires.

I bought it from Heinze Linke’s shop, the Madison Cycle Center, on Madison Avenue in Lakewood. Heinze worked at NASA by day and opened his bike shop in the evening. He was a godfather of bicycle racing on Cleveland’s west side. His shop had posters of Eddy Merckx and Bernard Thevenet, the biggest names in cycling at the time. Its racks were filled with fine racing machines. Anyone who has put in more than a few hundred miles on a bike like that knows this is true: It’s one thing simply  to own  a beautiful, hand crafted object, but it’s quite another to ride it, feeling the way it transmits the road to your muscles, the way it responds when you jump.

That's me in the middle, sporting the burgundy jersey, because the Cleveland Wheelmen had signed on to the notion that "Cleveland's A Plum."

I joined a racing team, the Cleveland Wheelmen. There were races in Detroit, Windsor, Akron, Canton, Dayton, Buffalo, and more. One year I got some black alphabet decals and put CLEVELAND on the front of each of my fork blades. My training logs show I rode that bike more than 30,000 miles.  It would have been about 1985 when I sold it.

Fast forward to 2011. I’ve been commuting to work for almost a decade, but lately I started riding fast again. I’m out of shape, but having a ball, and it makes me miss that bike.  So a few years ago I took up the habit of prowling Craigslist to find old bikes that awaken the joy that old Peugeot and a few other bikes had kindled in me. That’s what brought me to Blazing Saddles.

Rychak put the frames up on the counter.  One was too big. No sense looking at that. But  the other one, well, there was no way to deny that it happened to be the same make, model, year, size, and color as my old Peugeot.

Rychak told me the bike I was looking at came to Blazing Saddles from a guy who got it from his father.  There were chips in the paint, and specks of rust, but only cosmetic damage. I almost immediately noticed some flaking decals on the front of the fork blades, and I knew what they meant. But it didn’t sink in until I turned the frame toward me, so I could make sure everything was still straight and true. Those flaking decals on the front of each fork blade were the remains of of what I had put there almost 30 years earlier:  black helvetica letters spelling out  CLEVELAND.


This was my bicycle. Not just the same make, model,year, size, and color but the very same bike I had pedaled all those miles. Those Cleveland decals were proof as good as a notary stamp.

Since I sold this bike, Ronald Reagan completed his presidency. So did George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Now  Barack Obama is in the White House, and nearly thirty years after the last time I saw my bike–I had the chance to buy it back.  I paid the asking price, without even an attempt to bargain down.

Now my old Peugeot –the frame, at least–is hanging in my basement, waiting for me to scrape together cash and make good on my commitment to restore it.   It feels like I’m on a mission, to track down the rest of the components that once made it such a beautiful machine.   This could take years. I’m not in a hurry. Anyone know where I can get a set of Maillard 700, high flange hubs?

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