In Fritz Lang’s 1927 futuristic movie, Metropolis, a privileged surface dweller catches sight of a woman from the underworld and falls in love. While trying to find her he visits the world below the surface wherein the peoples’ lives consist of nothing but work and toil.
While searching for his love, the lead character comes across a man who’s task seems to be to coordinate all the output of the servant underclass. He is frantically working a mind numbing machine and is, in essence, a human toggle switch.
It has been over 20 years since I have seen the movie but one image from it has stuck in my mind ever since. Near the switch operator is the pater noster, a device that looks very much like a small platen press with a spinning flywheel.
As the order of the underworld begins to go out of control (because of the pursuit of forbidden love between social classes) the flywheel spins faster and faster until it finally comes off its shaft and rolls and bounces around the room, thus symbolizing a descent into chaos and the destruction of social order.
As a letterpress printer, a good deal of my time is spent standing at a printing press feeding paper into its maw. Just inches to my left spins a cast iron flywheel three feet in diameter.
While printing at top speed I can print about 2,000 impressions per hour. Since the fly wheel rotates three times for each impression taken, it is spinning around nearly three times per second.
I have often wondered what would happen if the flywheel came loose.
Yesterday it did.
And not much happened. The wheel did not punch through the wall, it did not bounce about and send me darting around the shop in a deadly game of industrial dodge ball. Truth be told, it was a bit of a let down.
The shaft key had come out of its keyway and the wheel came off. It spun, without getting any traction on the wood floor of the print shop, and then tipped over.
It took less than two minutes to get the fly wheel back on and I was printing again.
So, while I continue to toil in the underworld of the letterpress print shop I will, in the future, stop every now and again to make sure that the keys are snugly seated in their keyways.
And thus I hope to stave off chaos in the coming new year.