Newspaper Relics: Pica Poles, Proportion Wheels

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I walk among the ghosts of newspapers past in the building we occupy at present. A newspaper office once required armies of people to produce the Daily Miracle — as it is often called by folks in the business because some days that is how getting out a paper feels — a minor miracle. Now, because of technology, physically producing a paper requires fewer people and even fewer tools. It still requires access to a printing press, of course, and other large pieces of equipment, but the front end of newspapering is largely done staring at computer screens.

When I started at the Longview Daily News as a paperboy in 1969, the press was still hot metal — a process that required producing lines of lead type that were placed into a chase and locked down to create a page. Putting out a paper was arduous work. When newspapers went to offset presses, the technology used today, the army of folks required was reduced. That is about when I got in the business full-time, pushing 40 years ago.

In this office are some of the tools I once used to lay out pages, most of which are completely foreign to young journalists who can’t remember a time without computers. In the desk I inherited, I found a proportion wheel, a tool that has gone into disuse. A proportion wheel essentially is a circular slide rule that allowed one to figure the percentage a photograph needed to be enlarged or reduced to fit the allotted space. For example, if a photo was 10 inches wide and needed to run in a 5.25 inch hole, the wheel tells me it needs to be reduced by 52 percent. These days, one just resizes the photo on the computer screen using whatever software the paper uses to design pages.

Trouble with this explanation is that when I say “circular slide rule” folks on the south side of 40 or so have no idea what I am talking about. Electronic calculators replaced slide rules in the mid-1970s. You can find them on eBay and specialty sites, but only collectors are interested in them. Slide rules were often elegantly made out of fine wood and metal, so they have a certain aesthetic appeal that proportion wheels — made out of plastic — never had.

I brought my own pica pole with me, one I have been carrying around forever. Once while running the Lufkin paper eight or nine years ago, I hollered out, “Anyone have a pica pole?” I had left mine at home. The young staff had no idea what I was talking about.  A pica pole, still used by old-timers like me when we want to sketch out a design on paper before committing it to the computer, or need to measure a published ad, is a metal rule. The measurement increments are in picas (one-sixth of an inch), points (72 points to an inch), metric (for the rest of the world) and inches (for us Americans). Again, now the computer system makes a pica pole, if not obsolete, something not often used.

The backshop of this building, as is the case in many newspapers, contains a number of light tables. On these glass-topped, internally lighted tables, folks would opaque page negatives, which involved using a small artist’s brush and ochre-colored paint to cover up the pinholes and small scratches in the negatives. If they weren’t opaqued properly, it translated in to a newspaper page with black scratches and dots on it. There are still some newspapers using light tables and opaque paint, but not very many these days. I spent a year or so doing this touch-up work, along with shooting the pages on the oversized camera and burning plates to go on the press.

I found an old roll of border tape in the back, along with an Exacto knife. Border tape, which came in hundreds of designs and dozens of widths, was utilized to create boxes for ads, to put borders around photos, and to box stories. When we started producing ads and newspaper pages on computers — usually Macs back then — border tape rapidly became obsolete. In a few years, an entire industry disappeared in much the same way slide-rule manufacturers went away. Exacto knives, which used disposable, razor-sharp blades, are still used, but not to lay out a newspaper. I sliced open my finger tips with Exacto knives on a number of occasions, so I can’t say as how I miss having to use them.

Finally, as I wandered around the building I came to a door labeled “Darkroom,” another relic from a newspaper’s past. Nobody I know shoots film at a newspaper anymore, which means darkrooms have become storage closets or some other purpose. I graduated from paperboy to darkroom flunky at age 15, developing the adult photographers’ film and 4×5 sheets. Again, about 20 years ago, the digital revolution began in photography.

I don’t really miss darkrooms, proportion wheels, border tape or Exacto knives. But I sure am fond of that pica pole in the desk drawer. It has been a faithful companion for a lot of years.

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  • Wayne Greer


    Gary, My name is Wayne Greer and in 1969 I was the composing room machinist at the Longview News. I can relate to all the items that you mentioned. I still have a make up rule that I carried in my pocket for many, many years, Miss thowe day in a way.

    • admin


      Thanks for writing, Wayne.In 1969, I was the short kid with black-frame glasses who would wander through the composing room, fascinated by the process.

  • Russell Viers


    Greetings Gary... http://www.russellviers.com/?p=157 We're on the same page.

    • admin


      Very nice, Russell.

  • Connie Holubar


    Gary, I also remember these tools, as well as the blue line pencil. I'm thrilled that my son will be learning the business from someone with such talent, experience, and obviously respect for the importance of the written word. I look forward to checking out Mount Pleasant in the near future.

    • admin


      Connie: I forgot all about those blue-line pencils. I really look forward to Tanner joining us. I know he'll learn a lot and also contribute a great deal to the paper. The sooner the better!

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