Ottmar Mergenthaler – a Second Gutenberg

Ottmar Mergenthaler (18541899)
Photo taken at age 25 in 1879

On July 3, 1886, the first Linotype machine invented by German inventor Ottmar Mergenthaler commenced operation for the New York Tribune. The Linotype was the first device that could easily and quickly set complete lines of type for use in printing presses and revolutionized the art of printing. Along with letterpress printing, linotype was the industry standard for newspapers, magazines and posters from the late 19th century to the 1960s and 70s, when it was largely replaced by offset lithography printing and computer typesetting. The name of the machine comes from the fact that it produces an entire line of metal type at once, hence a line-o’-type, a significant improvement over the previous industry standard, i.e., manual, letter-by-letter typesetting using a composing stick and drawers of letters. The machine revolutionized typesetting and with it especially newspaper publishing, making it possible for a relatively small number of operators to set type for many pages on a daily basis. Before Mergenthaler’s invention of the linotype in 1884, no daily newspaper in the world had more than eight pages.

Mergenthaler was born in 1854 in Hachtel, Württemberg, near Stuttgart, as the third son of a school teacher, Johann Georg Mergenthaler. Mergenthaler rejected his father’s wishes to become a teacher, choosing instead to work with machinery and make mathematical instruments. Thus, he was apprenticed to a watchmaker in Bietigheim for four years, before emigrating to the United States in 1872 to work with his cousin August Hahl in Washington, D.C. Mergenthaler eventually moved with Hahl’s shop to Baltimore, MD, where he became shop foreman. In 1876 he was approached by James O. Clephane, who sought a quicker way of publishing legal briefs, via Charles T. Moore, who held a patent on a typewriter for newspapers which did not work and asked Mergenthaler to construct a better model. Mergenthaler recognized that Moore’s design was faulty and two years later he assembled a machine that stamped letters and words on cardboard. Although a fire destroyed all his designs and models, he started to work on the invention again as he wrote to himself “more books — more education for all. At home we had no money for school books…

He found a supporter in Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune. Another fifty patents were required before Mergenthaler could show a more or less usable model to the New York Tribune on July 3, 1886. While riding on a train, the idea came to him: why a separate machine for casting and another for stamping? Why not stamp the letters and immediately cast them in metal in the same machine? By 1884 the idea of assembling metallic letter molds, called matrices, and casting molten metal into them, all within a single machine, was applied. Mergenthaler reportedly got the idea for the brass matrices that would serve as molds for the letters from wooden molds used to make “Springerle,” which are German Christmas cookies. As a boy he had carved a Springerle mold for his stepmother.

Ottmar Mergenthaler demonstrates the Linotype,
Drawing by J. Coggleshall Wilson, 1886

The first typesetting machine that was used commercially, known as “The Blower,” was demonstrated in the New York Tribune’s composing room in 1886. According to Mergenthaler’s son Herman, “When Tribune publisher Whitelaw Reid … saw Ottmar type on the keyboard and shortly after a thin metal slug bearing several words slid down into a tray, he exclaimed, ‘Ottmar, you’ve done it! A line o’ type!’ Thus the Linotype machine was born.“. In the printing office of the New York Tribune the machine was immediately used on the daily paper and a large book.

As a result of his cost-, labor-, and time-saving machine and the attention it got via the Tribune, Mergenthaler’s business increased: he enlarged his Camden Street shop and expanded to an additional building on Preston Street to handle the flood of orders. Initially, The Mergenthaler Linotype Company was the only company producing linecasting machines, but around 1914 a linecasting machine would be produced by the competition — The Intertype Company. By 1904, there were 10,000 Linotypes in use, but by 1954 the number had skyrocketed to 100,000. During the 1970s and 1980s, Linotype and similar “hot metal” typesetting machines were retired and replaced with phototypesetting equipment and later computerized typesetting and page composition systems.

In 1894, Mergenthaler contracted tuberculosis. Two years later, unable to stand the cold, he moved to the Southwest, first to Prescott, Arizona, and then to Deming, New Mexico. He returned to Baltimore in late 1897 after a fire destroyed his New Mexico house and the manuscript of his just-completed autobiography. He died of tuberculosis in Baltimore in 1899 at age only 45. Like Gutenberg, Mergenthaler revolutionized the art of printing. “The Eighth Wonder of the World” is what Thomas A. Edison called Mergenthalers seminal invention.

At yovisto, you can learn more about the history of printing and the linotype technology in an educational video from the 1960s.

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