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Printer’s Devils

On February 28, 1963, the television series The Twilight Zone aired an episode entitled “Printer’s Devil,” based largely on a short story by Charles Beaumont entitled “The Devil, You say.” In this episode, the editor of a failing newspaper makes a deal with a stranger who offers to fund the enterprise in exchange for serving as the sole linotype operator and sole reporter. As the stranger, Mr. Smith, gets scoop after scoop – some mere minutes after the events take place – the newspaper gains in status. Mr. Smith then tries to get the editor to sign a contract guaranteeing continued success in exchange for the editor’s immortal soul. It seems that Mr. Smith also modifies the linotype machine so that whatever is written on it takes place for real.

The title of the episode refers to Mr. Smith as an incarnation of Lucifer, but it also refers to a term used to describe some printing apprentices. According to the Wikipedia article on the subject, the term’s origin is the object of some speculation. Some think it refers to the black skin stains resulting from the ink, and as black is a color associated with malicious sorcery, these apprentices came to be called devils.

Others speculate that worn-out or broken type ended up in a “hellbox,” which the apprentices took to the furnace for recasting, or that the term dates from the apprentice to English printer William Caxton, whose surname was Deville.

There are, however, two stories that are less practical but more compelling as anecdotes.

Early printing was often associated with devilry (even Aldus Manutius, the extraordinary Venetian printer, came in for his share of suspicion). There is an apocryphal story about a business partner of Gutenberg’s named Johann Fust. Fust was a major investor and supporter of Gutenberg’s printing-related inventions, but when Gutenberg failed to repay the investment and its interest within a set amount of time, some unproven stories say he took the machinery as collateral. It is certainly provable through court documents that Gutenberg eventually went bankrupt and appears to have lost control of his own invention.

In any case, according to this version of the story, Fust is supposed to have sold some of Gutenberg’s bibles to the French royal court of Louis XI. As early type was designed to resemble scribal handwriting, it would have been easy to mistake them for the manuscripts standard at the time. But the books raised some questions among the courtiers. All of the letters were unnaturally identical, after all, and the red ink might well be blood. He also seemed to make and sell the books far more quickly than was possible with manuscript books. So Fust was jailed on suspicion of black magic.

This story, while an excellent one, has little documentary evidence to support it. That said, over the years there have been whispers linking this story to the one of the infamous Dr. Faust, who sold his soul in exchange for knowledge.

Another explanation for the term “printer’s devil” refers to the idea that every print shop had a special devil, possibly the “patron demon” of scribes and printers named Titivillus, who indulged in minor mischief such as inverting type and misspelling words. The apprentices were an easy group to blame for such errors, and so became known as “printer’s devils.”

Whatever the origin, it is a wonderfully spooky term, and the many possible sources make for good storytelling. There was even a pub in Bristol, England, named The Printers Devil, but unfortunately it has been closed since 2008. Who knows? Maybe it was haunted.