During winter quarter I interned at the San Jose Mercury News.

On my last day, I saw ROBOTS. In the *building*. The bots keep the presses plied with newspaper, but really they’re plotting to take over the world (just a hunch).

Bot #3 replaces a roll. Over or under?

In a cavernous back room, the Merc hides an army of paper-toting automatons that hoist 1-ton spools of newsprint as easily as if they were restocking toilet paper. These blinking, beeping, burly machines efficiently complete their missions by navigating around towering stacks of newsprint, stocking the presses, and taking five in rest areas. And they don’t stop for humans — just kin. Yes, when they encounter a bro-bot they pause, maneuver around, and continue on their way. Humans? Ppfffffsh.

(“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer, do…”)

Chapter 1: The Mother Ship

To give you a sense of place: the building itself is a bit odd. If Stonehenge and Atlantis had a baby…it would look like Merc HQ:

<-- (there are duck ponds wrapped around the building) -->

But the reception area and newsroom belie a sense of normalcy:

Welcome! Photo: J Lee.

The command center. Photo: J Lee.







For behind those unassuming walls lurks Wonka-land. Don’t go alone. I didn’t. I had a guide: Ken McLaughlin, UCSC instructor and Merc reporter and editor. Ken had shown our class around back in December, but the presses weren’t running and bots were snoozing.

“Ken?” I said last Friday, before leaving the building. “I still haven’t seen the presses running!” So off we went.

Stepping into the 410,000-square foot home of The Presses & Their Minions is like entering Willie Wonka’s less-edible, less-colorful, and more dangerous lair.

don't get's a big world in there.

Past The Point of No Return

Chapter 2: Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Once through the doors, you’re greeted with a loud, frenzied mix of whirring machines, clattering assembly lines, workers — both human and machine — and papers snaking through mid-air as if on toy train tracks.

Knowledge up high.

Double helix?

Floating inky serpent.






The presses churn out history’s first draft at a rate of 20 newspapers per second (it really is “history in a hurry,” as Paul Rogers says). Ken swears they can stop on a dime: when confronted with panicked editors yelling, “Stop the presses!” the whole production halts within five seconds.

As for the printers themselves, they’re in a different area — one that looks kind of like a subway station: a three-story assemblage of doors, rollers, and buttons that produces printed pages faster than a speeding bullet train.

Walking along the platform (12/10 trip). Photo: D Venton.

Inside the control room (12/10 trip). Photo: D Venton.

Behind the blue walls?







The presses themselves are giant rollers fitted with metal plates bearing an image of each page. Each printer is in a space no larger than a closet, housed behind those bright blue walls.

Plates & rollers... Photo: D Venton

Press closet.Photo: J Lee

Printing...step away...







While printing, the paper flies by so quickly it just looks like streaks of color. Please note blue stripe in these next photos! It’s daunting to realize the words you write are printed at the speed of light (well, almost) then dropped onto more than 250,000 driveways. Wash, rinse, and repeat — the daily miracle.


...different platform...

...trash bin.





Chapter 3: Oompa-loompas & Stormtroopers

Behind the presses, we find the really interesting room: a repository for endless spools of newsprint. These things weigh a ton — f’realz — and at one point humans got sick of carting them around and designed some Loompas Bots to do the job instead. Brilliant, I say…but with a note of caution.

As Ken and I discovered on Friday, the Bots Stormtroopers are Not Friendly. We empirically tested the assertion that they would stop for a human in their path. Not within two feet — and when one of these dudes is coming at you carrying a ton of stuff, best not to push the experiment too far. But they do stop for each other and for inanimate objects, so there must be a (selective) sensor in there somewhere…

I really need a video to appropriately convey the other-worldliness of Loompa-land, since watching these things stop, start, load, unload, turn around, turn corners, and wake up on their own is a bit spooky. Alas, photos will have to do (for now). Note: those are not guide-tracks on the floor.

Close encounters with #6

#6 waits for #1 to load up

#10 approaches...







A design flaw?

This tunnel isn't wide enough for both of us.

After you, Merc-bot. (pardon the blurry action shot...)





Watch out for #1! (look both ways before emerging.)

Though we had to duck and dodge these things, Ken and I survived a very fun adventure. It’s probably good I didn’t discover the barreling bots sooner — I would’ve lost hours watching their unearthly choreography and attempting to refine my estimation of their stopping margin.

But I’ll be back, bots.

In any case, on the way home I found myself humming the following song by one of my favorite bands… (there’s a binary solo at 2:40…)



The End.


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5 Responses to Stormtroompas

  1. amahl says:

    Can you hitch a ride on a Merc-bot? Knowing you …. I bet you’ve thought about it. Most enjoyable to read. LL

  2. Stephen says:

    I heard Bot No. 7 got laid off and they split the work among the others. Now they all have to cover four aisles of rolls instead of three.

    P.S. Do they get furlough days?

    • nadia drake says:

      That must be why Bot-1 almost ran us over. Grumpy-bot feeling overworked and underpaid, gottago gottago gottago! Zoom zoom.

      There was one bot hanging around doing nothing. It must’ve been on furlough because otherwise it would’ve been on the bottom of an angry bot-pile. (just a guess)

  3. Pingback: martini-drinking robot minions | A Tale of Ten Slugs

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