Penrith Museum of Printing

The jacaranda trees are in flower around the Paceway, and a carpet of mauve petals surrounds the unassuming green shed that houses the Museum of Printing. Apart from the row of flags which announce the museum is open, swaying in the wind, and the magpies pecking at the lawn by the racing track, all is still. It is Sunday morning and, apart from the sound of the traffic on Mulgoa Road, it would seem like not much is happening in this quiet corner of Penrith.

Inside the museum it is a different story. At first I’m not sure what to expect from the sign that promises I’m about to meet the Linotype machine, the Eighth Wonder of the World. I am not quite able to imagine what lies behind the folding doors with a print of woodcut of a 15th century printing workshop on them. As an introduction, a display cabinet in the lobby has a display of various pieces of printerly ephemera: an invitation to the Copy Boy’s Picnic, instruction manuals and samples of type. I’m looking at this when the doors open and one of the museum guides welcomes me in.

It is busy in the print museum: every corner of it has a volunteer working away at something. One man has the top of one of the machines open and is cleaning it with a strong-smelling solvent, dipping a paintbrush into a saucepan, then leaning down into the mechanism to apply it. In the back corner, two men work with trays of type, and on the other side of the room, another operates a printing press. There’s a whirring, rattling sound as the press operates, which resounds through the room. It is as busy as I imagine print shops were when machines such as these produced anything printed: newspapers, books, office stationery, leaflets, everything before printing technology changed and these kinds of machines were thought to be redundant. Many of them were scrapped, but others, like these machines in the museum, have been saved by the efforts of printers who worked with them for decades, cared about their historical significance, and wanted to see them preserved.

Everything here works, the guide tells me, gesturing to the printing presses and the linotype machines. One tall iron press at the back of the room is painted green and has a gold eagle on the top: a weight, the guide tells me, not just a decoration. It is a Columbian Press, which was used to print the Carcoar Chronicle and then had another life on display in the foyer of Fairfax: the first copies of the Sydney Morning Herald had been printed on a similar press.

As we move around the museum, parts of the story are taken up by each of the volunteers. A compositor tells me how you could handset type as small as 2 point, so small it was barely readable, just by knowing the location of it in the case. He asks my name and, quick as a flash, hovers his hand over a tray of type and my name is set, upside down and back to front, in the composing stick. For posters they would use big blocks of wooden type, to print things like headline display posters, the kind that would be put outside of newsagencies. Another compositor tells me that, when Elvis died in 1977, they had used the largest letters of all to make the headline announcing this, as if that didn’t happen very often.

On to the eighth wonder of the world: the linotype machine. The man with the saucepan and brush pauses his cleaning operations and turns to show me how the Intertype – a tall and complex metal cabinet with a small keyboard at the base – operated. It had been invented in the 1880s by a watchmaker, he told me, who applied the mechanics of watch movements to devising a typesetting machine that would cast text out of molten lead, line by line.

The typesetter sits at the keyboard and types out a line of text, activating the machine, which rattles into life. The matrices – the metal pieces used to cast the type – drop down from a cabinet above and move through the machine with such precise, swift action that, by the end of the demonstration, I agree it is indeed a wonder. The typesetter had worked in a room that had 136 of them, noisily churning out the daily news. You were paid by the line, he told me, and if the machine malfunctioned you had to ring a bell that would bring the mechanic over to fix it. All major newspapers had rooms of linotype machines, like this one from around 1930, at the Sydney Morning Herald.

 Men working on the linotype machines in the Sydney Morning Herald building on Hunter Street, Sydney, ca. 1930

So I continue around the museum, seeing each of the machines in action. The largest of the presses, the Wharfedale Press, had begun the museum’s collection, along with other machines that had printed the Nepean Times, a local paper that had ceased operation in the 1960s. The inventor of the Wharfedale, the printer told me, would, when he was devising it, wake up in the night and sketch out ideas for the mechanism on his bedhead. Printers, I note, are drawn to details and idiosyncrasies. They seem to have a great respect or even love for the machines that they operate: feeding in sheets of paper, typing out lines of text, activating the foot pedal that drives the press to make its impressions.

The museum has been here, in the green shed at the corner of the paceway, for over twenty years, and is unique in its status as a working print museum. A few days before visiting I had been alarmed to hear that, with a proposed new sports stadium development in the planning, they are threatened with eviction. While known and loved in the printing community, the museum has a quieter presence in Penrith than other attractions: the prominently signposted Museum of Fire, or the ever-growing Panthers. The museum faces an uncertain future, but for now, the machines print on.

Thank you to Stephanus, Graham, John, George and all at the Penrith Museum of Printing.