IF YOU imagine there’s nothing less exciting than watching paint dry, imagine the hordes who poured into middle-brow entertainment centres called dime museums in the 1880s to watch compositors set type by hand. With the printing industry on the verge of a shift to mechanised typesetting, which relied on hot-lead-squirting machines of unparalleled complexity, the public developed an odd interest in seeing one of the few vestiges of craft work valued above the operating of mere machines.

These man-versus-machine exhibitions had echoes of the American folk legend of John Henry, “The Steel Driving Man”. They are being replayed today during the current robot uprising, in which every repetitive task in factories, construction and retail will supposedly end up being replaced by perfect, affordable robots that never require breaks or maintenance.

In 1886, just as the first Mergenthaler Linotype hot-metal composition machine was installed at the New York Tribune, the informal races among human compositors shifted from newspaper offices and trade locales into public venues where hundreds, even thousands, of people would pay to watch typesetters work like demons. The history is told by Walker Rumble in “The Swifts” (2003), named after the term for the fastest setters. In Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Memphis and New York, competitions abounded. Winners could take home purses ranging from $10 to $50, and in big competitions prizes went as high as $1,000. A compositor’s weekly wage was about $30.

While typesetting might seem tame fare to those who have never seen it done, the competitions were anything but. Competing for hours at a time with few rests, typesetters’ arms would pump back and forth to the case as fast as twice a second, churning like pistons. Punters would cheer on the compositors, who would be docked for errors by proofreaders later. At the peak of these races in 1886 one competitor, Alexander Duguid, set 2,277 “ems” (the width of the font’s point size) in an hour, roughly 7,000 letters and spaces. That is blindingly fast when the usual working pace was 700 to 1,000 ems an hour.

Typesetting was invented, like so many elements of printing, by Johann Gutenberg. His key invention, movable type, allowed the casting of consistent pieces of interchangeable metal letters, from which books could be expertly printed. The trade changed little for hundreds of years, even as mechanisation caught up to printing by the late 1700s, resulting in paper-making machines that produced continuous rolls and presses that could operate tens and then hundreds of times faster than previous manually driven ones.

Yet composition was still done one tedious character at a time. A typesetter stood at a tilted shelf, rapidly picking letters out of cubbyholes into a case (a drawer of type), and, like Ginger Rogers to Fred Astaire, assembling them both backwards and upside down in a type stick. It was piecework, brutal and relentless. A newspaper compositor might work from 1pm to 4am, with breaks to sort the type back into slots, to eat and, inevitably, to drink. They preferred gas lighting to candles or early electric lights, slowly asphyxiating themselves in poor ventilation. Occasionally, they slept. This may explain why in 1850 the average life expectancy of a printer (a group that included typesetters) was 28 years, according to a sick-benefit association of the time cited by Mr Rumble.

From the early 1800s, tinkerers tried to find ways to mechanise typesetting, which would require less motion to pick and arrange type in order, and sometimes to distribute it back into its cases. Some systems were fast; none were reliable. And with compositors setting 700-1,500 ems an hour, and an American newspaper of 1880 averaging about 75,000 ems of copy, typesetting was one of a newspaper’s biggest costs. With illness, rampant absenteeism, drunkenness and individual speed variation, a fleet of compositors had to be available to get through a night’s work. Something had to change.

It came in the form of the Linotype, which let a compositor tap on a keyboard to release individual letter moulds from a “magazine” above the device that slid into place, one after another, forming a “line o’ type.” When the line of moulds was complete, an operator released boiling lead amalgam, which filled the line of moulds, rendering a slug—one line’s worth of type on a single piece of metal—in an instant. Despite the lead and fumes, Linotypes resulted in far safer and faster conditions than handsetting, and hot-lead composition quickly became the rule for books and periodicals. By 1905, the average age of death for printers had lifted to 46.

A Linotype operator with 30 days’ training could set well over 3,000 ems an hour, with no time required for returning the moulds to their trays, as they were ingeniously carried by wires and lifts back into a magazine, ready to be dispensed again. With more experience, the rate could easily hit several thousand ems an hour, no matter the size of the type. Linotype swifts, as praised in the Linotype Bulletin in 1921, could easily hit sustained rates above 10,000 ems an hour.

Duguid, the great swift of the handset era, submitted an essay called “Practical Working of Composing Machines” to the 1894-1895 edition of the Inland Printer, a trade journal. He wrote: “The glory of the composing room is gone forever, and soon will be but a reminiscence as it fades before the everyday, practical typesetting machine.”

Handset type had poetry in it. Walt Whitman was not the only wordsmith who started his career fishing characters one at a time from a case. And mechanisation had little effect on “job” printers, who set most of their broadsides, stationery, business ephemera and small editions of books by hand until metal type mostly melted away by the 1970s. Perhaps today’s remaining manual professions, from burger flippers to bricklayers, will be memorialised the same way in a century.