A long time ago, in a publishing office far, far away, there were Linotype machines. These mechanical devices, first invented in 1886 by the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, mechanically laid out a “line o’ type,” and cast it in hot metal, saving printers from having to pull individual letters from trays and set type manually on a composing stick.
The Linotype was controlled by an unusual keyboard with 70 keys. There were three different colored sections: black was the lowercase letters. Blue, in the middle, was generally numbers and punctuation. White keys, on the right side, were the uppercase letters. Unlike a typewriter or computer keyboard, with its closely-spaced QWERTY keyboard organized to improve typing speed, the Lintotype machine’s keys were set in widely-spaced rows and columns. This layout was chosen because mis-keying any letters could result in errors. And there was no error correction when you cast a line in hot lead! So, they were set widely apart to make sure you slowed down and carefully chose the key you really meant to enter.
The layout of the keys was done from top-to-bottom, and left-to-right in terms of frequency. The most frequently-used characters were in the leftmost-rows. The first two vertical rows of keys thus had what the manufacturer decided were the most common English language characters: “e-t-a-o-i-n” in the first row, and “s-h-r-d-l-u” in the second row, and so on for the rest of the alphabet: “c-m-f-w-y-p,” “v-b-g-k-q-j,” and in the last row, “x-z.” With only two letters in this last row, the keyboard included keys for specific ligatures: “fi-fl-ff-ffl.”
This led to these lines being cast quite often as type samples, sometimes used to hold a place on a page being set, and occasionally showing up as an error in printing. “Etain Shrdlu” became a neologism of the printing and publishing industry.
The Linotype machine went the way of the dinosaurs with the advent of computer-controlled typesetting. The New York Times even created a documentary, “Farewell – ETAOIN SHRDLU” in 1978 to commemorate the end of the era of its venerable machines.
Many years later, in 2012, Peter Norvig of Google, took a look at Google Books Ngrams, to understand whether the inventors of the Linotype had actually got it right when selecting the most common characters in English. We’ve already told you about his finding on the most-common English words, but his analysis also considered the frequency of individual letters. The Linotype inventors weren’t far off.
The first line was the same as the Google analysis of commonality: “e-t-a-o-i-n.” The second line would have been almost the same: “s-r-h-l-d-c.” The next lines would have been: “u-m-f-p-g-w,” “y-b-v-k-x-j” and it would have ended “q-z.”
A curious thing to consider is how the world used the Linotype machine. Indeed, many different international models existed, from Russian to Devanagari. This latter machine could be used to set works in over 120 different languages across India and Nepal. Each of these international variants had its keyboard designed to ideally match the commonality of letters in its own native idiom. Each of these machines also revolutionized and accelerated the printing, publishing, and translation of materials into various languages around the world.
The next time you hold an old book from the first half of the 20th Century, you are likely holding on to an artifact set by a Linotype or a similar machine. Consider that, and whisper to it the magical phrase, “Etaoin Shrdlu!”