Linotype machine put masses in mass media


May 15, 2004|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

The noisy clackety-clack of the Linotype machine, once a staple of print shops and newspaper composing rooms everywhere, is an industrial sound that has practically vanished.

The Linotype, whose operators created lines of type rather than individual letters, replaced the laborious job and tedium of hand-setting text.

"They quickly cast characters in various typefaces and sizes, allowing publishers to print larger works in greater numbers at lower cost. Newspapers, which had consumed large amounts of lead type, could become a truly mass medium, delivering more news to more people affordably," observed a 1996 article in Editor & Publisher.

The machine's inventor, Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German immigrant who arrived in Baltimore in 1872 from his native Wurttemberg, was born on May 11, 1854.

The first Linotype machine, assembled in 1886, was hailed as the greatest technological advance in printing since movable type was invented by Johann Gutenberg in the 1400s. No less a figure than Thomas A. Edison hailed the machine as the "eighth wonder of the world."

Mergenthaler came to Baltimore after ending an apprenticeship with a watchmaker. He went to work in a Washington scientific instrument shop that moved to Baltimore in 1876.

In 1883, Mergenthaler opened a shop on Bank Lane near St. Paul Street, where he spent the next two years working on a machine that would cast an entire line of type at a time from molten metal. The operator used a typewriter keyboard to produce the various letters.

"Despite many improvements since then, the basic concept of Mergenthaler's machine has remained the same to the present day. Tapping the keys brings down matrices from a magazine. Each matrice has its own individual character. As the matrices form a line of words, wedges drop between them to make the lines measure out evenly," The Sun said in 1974.

"When the lines are completed, the matrices are moved to another position where molten metal is forced into them to make a solid line. Then the matrices are lifted out and distributed in the magazine."

It is said that Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Daily Tribune, witnessed a demonstration of the machine in 1886 and told Mergenthaler, "You've done it, a line of type," which gave the new invention its name.

A manufacturing company was formed and soon afterward a syndicate of prosperous newspaper publishers purchased Mergenthaler's controlling interest in the company for the then enormous sum of $300,000.

Mergenthaler, who later fell out with his partners, only received a royalty of $50 per machine. He later recalled it as being the "mistake of my life."

New York newspapers embraced the new technology, which allowed them to expand their papers and to set type more quickly, thus speeding news to readers.

Mergenthaler, who lived at 159 W. Lanvale St., died of tuberculosis in 1899. He was buried in Loudon Park Cemetery.

The Sun, however, did not rush to use the new technology. According to the book The Sunpapers of Baltimore, the newspaper was "reluctant to adopt this new revolutionary contraption, and ... the Linotype had been in use in New York newspaper offices for some years before it was accepted by the principal newspaper in the inventor's hometown."

The other reason given was that the machine replaced the work formerly undertaken by eight printers.

The Mergenthaler Linotoype Co. terminated U.S. production in 1971 after selling 90,000 machines. The company's name remained unchanged until 1987 when it was acquired by a German company, Linotype AG.

The Sun's last Linotype machine, Model 31, No. 55395, fell silent in 1977 after the newspaper completed its successful transition to "cold type." It has been preserved for future display.

Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School in Baltimore commemorates the inventor. A stained-glass window in Zion Lutheran Church on North Gay Street, which Mergenthaler attended, depicts a Mergenthaler Blower Linotype.

In 1935, according to a church history, Mergenthaler's widow presented Zion with the chandelier and four wall sconces from the couple's Lanvale Street home. They can been seen in the church's library.

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