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Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Etaoin shrdlu, anyone?

Albert Einstein sets the first lines of a report for a new Jewish newspaper, printed in English, in New York on January 15, 1934.
At that time he was a professor at Princeton University.
The first known example of ETAOIN SHRDLU being published
in an Australian newspaper - 
the Launceston Examiner in Tasmania, 7 August 1896, page 6.
Holy carp!
I've made a mistake.
X over it?
No.
Tippex?
No.
Wite Out?
No.
Liquid paper?
No.
Oh, I know.
ETAOIN SHRDLU!
Daily News, Perth, Western Australia, 22 July 1898, page 3
When a Linotype operator made an error, he ran his fingers down two rows of keys to signify in hot metal that the line of type needed to be extracted from the body matter by the compositor during the page make-up process.
But sometimes - just occasionally - the proof-readers and the compositors missed it.
Topeka Daily Capital, Topeka, Kansas, 28 December 1895, page 3
And it finished up in print, in the newspaper, confusing the poor paying reader no end.
Etaoin shrdlu marked a bad slug, and an even worse oversight when published.
The Day Book, Chicago, Illinois, 18 July 18 1916, page 2
The New York Tribune was the first newspaper to use Mergenthaler Linotype machines, on July 3, 1886. Just eight years and 24 days later, up popped the first etaoin shrdlu, on page nine of The Daily Picayune in New Orleans, on 27 July, 1894.
I was reminded of this wonderfully intriguing newspaper gaffe last week by a post on the Kiwi Journalists' Association Facebook page. It reported Gary Law of the New Zealand Archeology Association as saying, "Linotype machines that set hot metal type and revolutionised newspaper and book production were once all pervasive, until replaced by computer technology. The first two columns on the Linotype keyboard read ETAOIN SHRDLU – in both the upper case and the lower case keyboard. Operators frustrated with their work were known to run their finger down the rows and the words would appear in the hot type and sometimes make it to the paper."
The earliest etaoin in New Zealand, above, appeared in the Auckland Star on 5 February 1898, a mere six months after the newspaper's owner, Henry Brett (1843-1927), had imported five machines, valued at £3546, in August 1897. There was much resistance from unions to their introduction and Brett went to court over stiff import duties. Brett had a history of innovation. He purchased a flock of pigeons to carry news from the Thames goldfields and elsewhere.
Henry Brett
Etaoin shrdlu is the approximate order of frequency of the 12 most commonly used letters in the English language, as the letters on Linotype machines were arranged by a perceived letter frequency. (The Linotype keyboard was almost right - the actual frequency of letters in the English language is apparently ETAONI RSHDLC, although this too is in dispute.)
Etaoin shrdlu appeared in print often enough to become part of newspaper lore and to be listed in the Oxford English Dictionary and in the Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary. A documentary about the last issue of The New York Times to be composed in the hot-metal printing process (2 July, 1978) was titled Farewell, Etaoin Shrdlu. See here.
SHRDLU was used in 1972 by Terry Winograd as the name for an early artificial-intelligence system in Lisp. Elmer Rice's 1923 play The Adding Machine includes Shrdlu as a character. In 1942 Etaoin Shrdlu was the title of a short story by Fredric Brown about a sentient Linotype machine. (A sequel, Son of Etaoin Shrdlu: More Adventures in Typer and Space, was written by others in 1981.) It is the name of a science fiction fanzine edited by Sheldon Lee Glashow and Steven Weinberg. Three pieces published in The New Yorker magazine in 1925 appeared under the pen name Etain Shrdlu. At least one piece in The New Yorker has Etaoin Shrdlu in the title.
The Wichita Daily Eagle, Wichita, Kansas, 27 April 1895, page 1
The double whammy: 
Davenport Daily Republican , Davenport, Iowa, 14 November, 1895, page 1
My all-time favourite, the Linotype operator who completely lost his cool:
 Wagga Wagga Express, New South Wales, Australia, 4 February 1899, page 2

2 comments:

Peter said...

I first learned about etaoin shrdlu while watching the wonderful documentary, "Linotype: The Film" (linotypefilm.com). Thank you for carrying the story about this typographic curiosity so much further! Very interesting!

Steve K said...

I'm surprised it hasn't inspired a computer virus (or maybe it has). :)