25 Tons of Heavy Metal: Preserving the History of Printing

Discover how two men from Ohio shaped the the history of printing and learn about the grassroots effort to preserve a remarkable collection of equipment used to cast metal type.

Posted July 10, 2023
Topics: The ArtsIndustry & LaborHistoric Preservation

By Fritz Swanson, co-founder of the Printing Stewards

Greg Walters, of Piqua, Ohio, had a mission: his country needed him to save a piece of history—to know it, care for it, and keep it in use. That the piece of history weighed close to ten tons wouldn’t stop him. It had to be done.

Greg set out on Saturday, August 22, 1993, with a rented Ryder truck to Elizabeth, New Jersey, to participate in an auction for some of what should have been the most cherished equipment in American history. These were machines used to create printing types. These metal bits were used for newspaper, books, the ephemera of business and culture, and anything else that needed to be set in type, just as they had been since Johannes Gutenberg’s day in the mid-1400s. 

Greg had to plan this trip carefully. His full-time job was at a commercial printer in the “pre-press” department, the area where materials from clients were processed so that they could go on press and be printed. Greg had just four days of vacation left in 1993, and his boss had been assigning him huge amounts of overtime all summer.

It didn’t matter. Greg drove through the night, stopping only briefly, allowing him to arrive at 8 a.m. on August 23 at the main plant of the American Type Founders Company (ATF) just as auctioneers were opening the space for bidders to enter and inspect the lots. He was bidder number two.


Americana Type

Matrices, or dies, used to cast Americana 72-point type

ATF, founded in 1892, was a conglomerate of nearly two dozen individual type foundries, most of them struggling in the face of competition from the Linotype, a faster way to set type. ATF’s foundries made individual characters for “handsetting,” in which a typesetter quickly grabbed each letter from a cubby hole in a drawer of type to assemble words, columns, and pages. 

By 1993, few people remembered ATF or even knew that it had ever existed. At its industrial peak, Teddy Roosevelt railed against it as “The Type Trust,” and it figured prominently in his Progressive Policy Agenda. At its nadir in the mid-1980s, ATF heated its plant by burning its own old sales catalogs to save on fuel costs.

But Greg and a small group of printing and metal type enthusiasts understood the importance of ATF. They arrived from all over to attend what they called “The Auction of the Century.” While metal-type printing had been slowly dying for years, the auction was the wake and the funeral. The end of ATF finally closed the books on an entire commercial era.


American Type Founders advertisement

One of the last circulars produced by the American Type Founders Company

Greg hadn’t driven straight from Piqua for nostalgia. Rather, he wanted to get his hands on some of the typefounding equipment at ATF. In order to understand what Greg wanted to preserve, we have to back up and talk about printing type and how it is made. Our story starts with Johannes Gutenberg, and it culminates with Henry Barth.

Most people loosely know that Gutenberg invented the printing press and something called “movable type.” But presses and printed material predated Gutenberg, including centuries and possibly longer in China and Korea. Among his innovations, Gutenberg’s key genius was creating a way to produce identical printing types. He would craft a letter in a die, called a matrix in typefounding, and the die or matrix would be fitted to a mold. Each matrix allowed the mold to cast a different letter, and so with a set of matrices for each letter in the alphabet, one mold could cast all of the letters needed to set a page of a book. The “movable” part of “movable type” was that types could be set in any order, printed on dozens or thousands  of times, and used again in different combinations.

Millions upon millions of pieces of individual metal type were made this way, then sorted into sets and sold to printers. Each letter in each size and typeface or style required its own matrix, meaning dozens to hundreds would be needed for, say, 12 point Times Roman, and another set of dozens for 12 point Times Italic. Individual type wore out in use, requiring continued resupply.

Many inventors worked on improvements, but it wasn’t until 1838 that New York typefounder David Bruce perfected a machine to automate most of the work involved in pouring lead into molds to cast type, though the finishing steps remained.

It was left to Henry Barth, an immigrant son of Ohio, to complete the job. Originally from Leipzig, Barth migrated to Cincinnati in 1849. A veteran of the attempted European democratic revolutions of 1848, he settled at age 26 in the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood of the city among many thousands of other German-speaking emigres. Barth was a mechanical engineer who had worked in publishing and typecasting in Leipzig, and so it was natural that when he arrived in Ohio he quickly secured a position at the Cincinnati Type Foundry, one of the premier suppliers of printing type and equipment west of the Appalachian mountains.

While still in Leipzig, Barth had already built his own variations of the machine Bruce originated. Then, as an American working in Ohio, Barth continued to develop and refine his own ideas for mechanical typecasting. By the Civil War, Barth had become partial owner of the Cincinnati Type Foundry, ultimately settling on a design for the typecasting machine which would bear his name: the Barth Automatic Type Caster.

The Barth caster, which went into use in the early 1890s, fully automated typecasting: after inserting a matrix, a foundry employee could watch over many machines at once, each of which cast and then “fully dressed” the type, doing the work of several individual operations before it came out of the machine. The Barth caster is considered one of the pinnacles of late Victorian engineering. When ATF formed in 1892, the Cincinnati Type Foundry was one of the premier foundries to join, and Henry Barth became a significant senior officer in the new corporation. His caster became the standard machine upon which the whole enterprise rested.

Our best estimates are that fewer than 600 Barth casters were made. By the time Greg got to the auction, fewer than 100 remained. Greg stood shoulder to shoulder with a handful of collectors, the Smithsonian Institution and a few other museums, and a bevy of scrap metal dealers.

By the end of the auction, the vast majority of the machines were lost to the scrap metal dealers. Only 25 of the machines are confirmed to have survived the auction. The bulk of them are now with a collector in Europe.

Greg saved 10 of them, now the last Barth Casters left in the Americas. And Greg brought them back to Ohio, where they were born.


My name is Fritz Swanson. I got to know Greg more than a decade ago when I was writing about the collection of Barth Casters that ended up in Antwerp, Belgium. I have long been committed to telling people about how important the American Type Founders were to our nation’s history.

In 2019, Greg and I began the process of creating a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving these machines that he had grown to know so well. The pandemic intervened and we were stalled for two years. Then, in 2021 Greg was diagnosed with cancer.

By January 2022, Greg was dead.

I and two colleagues established The Printing Stewards in April 2022 to preserve Greg’s collection. Our group now has IRS recognition as a 501(c)(3) educational nonprofit. We worked with Greg’s family to clear his residence of the machinery assembled over decades—over 25 tons of machinery and supporting material—moving it all to his pole barn. It took an organized team of volunteers working for most of 2022 to move and consolidate the collection. While the Barth Casters are the heart of the collection, we have also preserved close to 100 other critical machines of typefounding history. With them come more than 6,000 sets of matrices—dozens to hundreds of letters each—representing common typefaces, like Caslon and Cheltenham and Baskerville, but also many rare and unique faces. 

Of the 371 ATF matrix families saved from the scrappers at the auction, Greg bought 147. Most of those matrix sets are unique in the world. Consider Phenix, designed at ATF in 1935. You will recognize this as the typeface used in the famous “Got Milk” campaign.Those matrices are one of a kind. 

Greg saved the only Barth caster in the world that can cast one of the largest sizes of metal type, 72 points—exactly one-inch tall. Greg’s collection is the only way to authentically produce fresh Phenix metal type at that large size.

Greg carried this legacy for the whole nation for the last 30 years. He was a leader among a small community of dedicated preservationists doing vital work to hold on to a uniquely American heritage.

The Printing Stewards formed to pick up this burden because Greg isn’t here anymore.

Barth type caster

The 120 Point Barth Caster as rescued from the ATF auction. Now preserved in the Gregory Jackson Walters Typographic Archive, awaiting restoration.

Greg Walters of Piqua Ohio in his Workshop

Greg Walters working on the American Type Founders' Giant Pivotal typecaster

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