The Linotype Machine: Thomas Edison called it the "Eighth Wonder of the World"

"Ottmar, you've done it again! A line o' type!" Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Tribune, exclaimed on July 3, 1886, when Ottmar Mergenthaler demonstrated his new Linotype machine. The Linotype quickly brought about a revolution in the printing industry.

More than 400 years after Johann Gutenberg invented moveable type, a process that allowed printers to set type by hand a letter at a time, the Linotype allowed printers to set a complete line of type, using the Linotype's 90-character keyboard. Because the Gutenberg process was so slow, most large newspapers consisted of no more than eight pages. But with the advent of the Linotype, that was to change quickly, and within 20 years Linotypes were in use in every state.

Mergenthaler's invention measured 7 feet tall, 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep. It allowed newspapers to compose pages four to five times faster and caused thousands of hand compositors to lose their jobs. A skilled Linotype operator could cast four to seven lines of type a minute. The Linotype operator's key strokes told the machine which letter molds to retrieve from the magazines and the machine assembled a row of metal molds, or matrices, that contained imprints of those characters. Then, the machine poured molten lead into the matrices and the result was a complete line of newspaper type, but in reverse, so that it would read properly when it transferred ink to the page. The machine automatically restored the matrices to the magazines after the lead was poured.

Although his invention changed the newspaper business, Mergenthaler did not start out as an inventer of printing machines. The youngest of four Mergenthaler children, Ottmar was born in Ensingen, Germany, and early on expressed an interest in machines. At age 13, he repaired his village's Lutheran church tower clock, which had not run in years. Mergenthaler studied watch making under the guidance of his stepuncle, Louis Hahl in Bietigheim. Then after completing his apprenticeship, he emigrated to the United States on Oct. 26, 1872, and joined his stepcousin, August Hahl, in Washington, D.C.

Mergenthaler's idea for the Linotype machine began to form after he and his stepcousin moved their business to Baltimore. They managed a shop that built models for inventors seeking to patent their creations. One of the inventors, Charles T. Moore, brought Mergenthaler sketches for his "transfer typewriter," a machine that Moore believed would revolutionize printing. Mergenthaler, who had studied mechanical drawing and basic electrical theory during his apprenticeship, found numerous flaws with Moore's design and decided to develop his own machine to create type.

In 1882, Mergenthaler began designing the early versions of the Linotype. 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. Even though the Blower Linotype functioned effectively, Mergenthaler continued to refine the design. In 1892, he developed the Simplex Linotype Model 1, which became the prototype for more than 100,000 Linotype machines. It was the sensation of the Chicago World's Fair the next year.

Two years after he released the Simplex Linotype, Mergenthaler was stricken with tuberculosis. He died on Oct. 28, 1899, at his home in Baltimore. Funeral services were held in the Old Zion Lutheran Church and today the church contains a stained glass window with a representation of Mergenthaler's Blower Linotype.

(Posted Aug. 15, 1996.)

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