In Her Words: Norma's Story

Norma's Story

In Her Words

Candid Profiles of Strength Told by the Women of Northbridge


Throughout the month of March, we have collaborated to celebrate Women’s History Month and the rich history of the amazing women living in our communities. Their candid stories are brimming over with love, happiness, passion, family values and the markings of individuals who have truly lived well and loved life.


Norma’s Story (as told by her son, Larry)


Back in the 1960's there was a small business in downtown Newburyport called the Newburyport Press.  The Newburyport Press provided printing services to local businesses like Shamut Fuses, and local cities and towns with publications like the Newbury Annual Report, the Yankee Home Coming Program and Little League books.


During the 60's and 70's, prior to the advent of phototypesetting and word processors, the Newburyport Press relied on 80-year-old machines called linotypes to produce lines of lead type as a pre-processor for their printing presses.   Back at the turn of the century, the linotype was a revolutionary invention that obsoleted the manual type setting done with individual letters drawn from large wood drawers called type cases.  The linotype machine was an ingenious, semi-automatic machine that would humble any modern day mechanical design engineer.


Pecking away at the keyboard of one of these machines for hours on end, was Norma Gray.  Norma loved the linotype.  For each letter she typed, a matrix dropped from the magazine overhead making a “tick tick tick tick tick” noise as the matrices dropped into the assembler.  A matrix was a flat piece of metal about the size of one's thumb and was essentially a mold for a single letter.   After 30 or 40 letters the assembler was full and Norma would pull a casting lever sending the matrices to the delivery channel transporting the line to the casting section of the machine.  The machine would then automatically cast a lead “slug” that would drop down into a galley tray.  The lead slug dimensions were approximately 1/4” x 1” x 6”, with backward letters along the top edge. There was something soothing about the clicking sound of the matrices being automatically sorted and distributed back into the magazine while simultaneously, Norma typed another line.  This process went on for a few minutes until a column of type was completed.  Norma would quickly proof read the column before moving it to a tray called a galley which made up one page of type.  Norma, an avid reader, could read text backwards as fast as she could forward.  Occasionally, she would find a mistake, pick out that slug of type, recast a new one, and then reinsert it into the correct location.  The very heavy galley of type was then transported to the proof press.  Norma had big biceps after many years of carrying lead galleys.


At the back of the machine, pigs of lead approximately two feet long, slowly fed into a melting pot.  As each slug was cast, a ram would force the molten lead into the mold and against the matrices.  A few seconds later, the lead solidified to form a slug of type.  Occasionally, however, the machine would get dirty and the mold didn't seal off properly.  The molten lead would “squirt” out the front of the machine.  If Norma wasn't quick enough she'd end up with splatters of hot lead on her pants.  She probably still has scars on her legs to prove it.


During the urban renewal project of downtown Newburyport, the building that housed the Newburyport Press was seized by eminent domain and torn down.  The Newburyport Press was forced to relocate to a building on Hanover Street in Newbury.  The linotypes were flat bedded to their new location where Norma continued to operate them for a few more years.  In the late 70's change was inevitable.  The linotypes were finally made obsolete after nearly 100 years of service.  Norma reluctantly had to learn to operate a phototypesetting machine made by Compugraphic.  These machines were stepping stones to modern day word processors.  Norma continued to work on the phototypesetting machines until her retirement in early 80's, but she much preferred the hot, dirty and temperamental linotypes.


References: Wikipedia

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