Cranking up the Time Machine


Allan Haley in Archive on September 27, 2010

Time travel does exist. This morning, Doug Shaw, the president of Monotype Imaging, Chris Roberts, Monotype Imaging’s vice president of marketing, and I traveled back to the turn of the last century.

OK, we didn’t actually go back in time – but we did travel to Firefly Press, a letterpress type shop that still sets type with Monotype and Linotype metal typesetting equipment. The machinery, which dates back to the early years of the twentieth century, is loud, labor intensive to operate and mind-numbingly complicated.

If you are not familiar with these machines, they produce metal type (a combination of lead, tin and antimony) from small molds, or matrices, that are used in letterpress printing. The Linotype machine lines the molds up and then casts a complete line of type as a single piece – hence the name “Line-o-type.” The Monotype machine produces one piece of type at a time – it is a “mono type” casting machine. While there are pros and cons to each technology (the Linotype is faster but, if you make a mistake, the whole line must be reset), the end result of each is something quite wonderful. It is type that is used for letterpress printing – relief printing of text using a printing press and type, in which a reversed, raised surface is inked and then pressed into a sheet of paper to produce a positive right-reading image. This is essentially the form of printing text, from the time Johannes Gutenberg came up with the idea in the mid-fifteenth century until the early twentieth century.

The result of letterpress printing is a rich, tactile page with a slight indentation where the raised type makes its impression on the paper. You can feel this if you run your finger over the page. There was a time when all printing was done in this manner. Today, small letterpress shops, like the Firefly Press, tend to print very special documents like wedding invitations, diplomas, important announcements and, every once in a while, a very special book.

Yes, it’s more expensive than typical offset printing that is common today but, if you have an extraordinary occasion to announce, or want to make a lasting impression, there is nothing quite like letterpress.

If you would like to learn more about letterpress printing in general, or the Firefly Press specifically, view the video below. If you would like to contact the Firefly press, you can reach them through their Web site (

Allan Haley
Allan Haley is Director of Words & Letters at Monotype Imaging. Here he is responsible for strategic planning and creative implementation of just about everything related to typeface designs.

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