April 6

“I am in receipt of your favor of March 25 in which you make inquiry as to my connection with the Paige Type-setting and Justifying Machine.”

So begins a letter written on April 6, 1913 to Messrs. Lucien Alphonse Legros and John Cameron Grant, and reprinted in their monumental work, Typographical Printing Surfaces. The writer was David H. Fletcher, of Chicago, a patent attorney responsible for the final specifications of the remarkable machine known generally as the Paige Compositor. Of all the early attempts to set printers’ types automatically, this device seems to retain the greatest amount of attention. Perhaps this is due to the association with Mark Twain, its principal backer.

Fletcher went on to state, “You ask ‘if this work produced no ill effects upon my mind.’ Viewed from a purely human standpoint—yes; viewed from the standpoint that the universe is not a blunder and that man is here for some great purpose—no. This extraordinary creation was both a triumph and a tragedy. Notwithstanding all of the trying experiences and disappointments associated with it, it was in many ways uplifting, broadening, and inspiring. In judging of it as an invention, I have tried to dismiss prejudice and to measure its merits with those of the great inventors of the world, and, as an automatic device, considering the character of the varying problems solved by it, I am of the opinion that it is the greatest thing of the kind that has been accomplished in all of the ages. Commercial failure as it was, for reasons which need not be mentioned, it was an intellectual miracle and its relation to men, as indicating the creative power of mind, is a suggestive verification of the prophecy that ‘they shall become as Gods.’ ”

Fletcher could readily have damned the Paige machine. The patent application was filed in 1887 and took eight years to be approved, during which time one of the examiners died while the case was pending, another died insane, and the attorney who prepared the original case also died in an insane asylum.

Nevertheless the machine worked. and was just about everything its creator insisted it was. Five thousand pounds in weight, eleven feet long, and six feet high, the Paige compositor was a keyboard operated typesetter which assembled and distributed 6-point metal types. This feat was accomplished with the aid of some 18,000 moving parts, a complicating factor which limited its success, particularly at a moment when Mergenthaler’s typesetting machine had already demonstrated its capabilities.

In 1895, the year in which the Paige machine was patented, 1,076 Linotypes were manufactured. During a twenty year period of development just two Paige Compositors were built, both of which were presented to museums when the Mergenthaler firm purchased the Paige patents.

In 1894, in a sixty day test at the Chicago Herald, the Paige outperformed the individual machines in a battery of thirty-two Linotypes which had been used by the newspaper for several years. The product turned out was reported to be, “in artistic merit, equal to the finest book-work ever set by hand.” Operated by a competent journeyman printer, the Paige Compositor reputedly produced 8,000-10,000 ems per hour.

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