March 10, 1998
If while reading printed material of some kind you've ever come across a mysterious combination of letters such as ETAOIN, followed by SHRDLU, you've probably wondered what happened. Were those accidents of typesetting, gross typographical errors that somehow escaped the proof reader's attention? What could have brought about such an unlikely juxtaposition of vowels and consonants, producing unpronounceable mouthfuls?
That particular assemblage of letters used to appear in newspapers and other forms of commercially produced literature much more often than it does nowadays. In truth the cryptic message is the work, sometimes accidental, of the operators of machines known as Linotypes and Intertypes, great hulks of equipment that once occupied important space in virtually every print shop, large and small, throughout the land. ETAOIN SHRDLU! They look like a typesetter's oath, perhaps uttered on a bad Monday morning when the usual things went wrong at his or her workplace. Or could they have been spewed out because illegible handwritten copy was placed on the operator's spindle? Both are possibilities, but, more likely, neither of those is really the case.
In the days before offset printing and desktop publishing invaded the office of industry as well as commercial composing rooms, type was, universally set on Linotypes or their clones. These machines work with attached pots of molten lead, kept in liquid state by gas burners. The keyboard is similar to those found on typewriters, but with a notable exception: Letters on a Linotype keyboard appear in a radically different sequence than they do on a typewriter. So typing skills are of no value to young apprentices interested in becoming ace typesetters. They have to unlearn anything acquired previously in the use of a typewriter.
The first row of letters on the Linotype keyboard, reading vertically from top to bottom, were arranged in this sequence: E T A O I N. On the next row it was S H R D L U. When a Linotype operator realized an inadvertent error had been made in the composition of a line of type, he had to fill out the faulty line with some meaningless gibberish and then throw out that line when it appeared in the moving tray at his left hand. He did that by dragging his left index finger down those first two rows of keys. You can guess what often happened. The bad line would not be tossed out but would appear in print along with the rest of the text, leaving readers mystified.
In these days of computer typesetting. Linotypes have all but disappeared from most print shops. Some are still in use and those who have preserved the art believe they are still following the only "true" form of producing type for printed matter. Electronic systems have nearly eliminated the ancient guild practices, and I can just imagine that some of those crusty old-timers are not happy about the current state of their craft. Can't you hear them muttering "ETAOIN SHRDLU!" when the thought crosses their mind? And it doesn't require an interpreter to understand what they're thinking.