Warren Johnson, master of the Linotype monster
Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi
November 6, 2021
For more than 30 years when the Johnson family owned the Tehachapi News, the newspaper was typeset each week on a monumental piece of equipment called a Linotype Machine, which was invented by Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1884. This complex, 6,000-piece device revolutionized the printing industry by enabling type to be cast and stamped quickly, rather than laboriously set by hand, letter by letter. Setting type by hand took so long that prior to the invention of the Linotype, no newspaper in the world was longer than eight pages, and the profound impact of the Linotype led Mergenthaler to be called "a second Gutenberg." Here is a remembrance of the Johnsons' Linotype experience by Joan Johnson, who was Dick Johnson's wife.
After five years with the Banning Live Wire, Walter "Pop" Johnson came to Tehachapi in 1943 when he bought the Tehachapi News from a Kentucky colonel-appearing gentleman named Grove Wilson. The shop inventory included a1922 model Linotype which was a few months younger than Pop's oldest son, Warren. Three years later, fresh from the Army, Okinawa and Korea, Warren came to Tehachapi to join his Dad in the newspaper business and began his apprenticeship on the Linotype. It took the young novice from six months to a year to learn the 90 keys; the justification of lines (with scars to prove it as an overset meant a hot squirt of metal from the rebellious contraption); repair and maintenance (the closest repairman was in Los Angeles and press days never allowed for breakdowns); and umpteen other little idiosyncrasies that the man had to master over the matter.
The old Lino only missed two issues in its lifetime with the Johnsons – once for repairs and once after the 1952 earthquake when it was covered with grit, as the old upstairs Masonic Temple on Green and F streets crumbled into a heap into the News office below. Pop Johnson never lived to see the next modernization engineered by Warren and his other son Dick, because in 1966, two years after Pop's death, they installed a computerized process known as offset. The original Linotype continued to be used in conjunction with newer typesetting equipment, but as the years piled on the '22 model, it became more difficult and cantankerous to operate, and was replaced in 1973 by a 1942 model Linotype that cost $1,000. In the years following World War II, the price would have been $18,000 to $35,000, but by 1973 the technology was on its way out and could be bought cheaply.
In 1978, we bought a Compugraphic typesetting machine and the Linotype era at the Tehachapi News came to an end. That monstrous, impossible-to-move hunk of history had a very special place in our hearts, but that old cow had no pasture in which to graze; it was an antique car replaced by a Cadillac too soon to become a collector's item. We sold the Lino to a used equipment dealer for $600, so maybe it lived on for awhile after it left us. As for Warren, he didn't care to make the switch to new equipment. After so many years and so many thousands of hours of using the old Linotype machine, he decided that when the Lino was done setting type, so was he. After nearly four decades, the Johnson family sold the paper to Bill and Betty Mead in 1980.
– Joan Johnson