December 4

Alden Typesetter

Timothy Alden, of the sixth generation in direct descent from John Alden of Plymouth Colony and Courtship of Miles Standish fame, died on this day in 1858 in his thirty-ninth year, worn out from his endeavors in the creation of a typesetting machine. Born in Yarmouth, Massachusetts, he was apprenticed at the age of sixteen in the printing office of the Barre (Massachusetts) Gazette, remaining as a compositor there for eleven years.

During this period he began to dream of inventing a machine which would relieve the tediousness of much of the compositor’s work, and at the same time appreciably increase his production. Observing that a competent telegraph operator could press keys at the rate of fifteen thousand an hour, he estimated that a typesetting machine equipped with a keyboard similar to that of a piano, could turn out work equivalent to that of at least seven compositors. Starting with this precept, he began serious work about 1838, finally traveling to New York in 1846 to seek financial support to continue his research.

The typesetting machine invented in England by Young and Delcambre had received an American patent in 1840, but up to 1850 no American patent had been granted to a native of this country. William H. Mitchell of Brooklyn did receive a patent in 1853, but the machine was never used or developed any further. In 1856 Alden was granted his first patent, and with additional capital his “practical” typesetter and distributor was ready for use. It was still, however, an imperfect mechanism, and in his efforts to remove the complications Alden destroyed his health.

The backers of the Alden machine continued their attempts to recoup their financial loss. They finally tested the typesetter in various New York newspaper offices, including that of the Tribune, where it was proved that it could produce the work of five comps, but, unfortunately, at the same cost as the labor of those same five. The device contained some 14,626separate parts, and it weighed 1,560 pounds. The report to the stockholders of the company formed to develop and market the Alden Typesetter is listed by Bigmore and Wyman’s Bibliography of Printing as an exceedingly rare book. Actually it represents an exclusive item in the incunabula of automated typesetting.

Bigmore and Wyman list the volumes as follows: “Yeaton (Charles C.). Manual of the Alden Typesetting and Distributing Machine: an illustrated Exposition of the Weight of every Piece, including Estimates of Cost of Labour and Material; a Summary of the Amount of Typesetting annually executed; an Authentic Sketch of the History and Progress of the Invention, with a Proposed Plan of Future Operations for the Alden Typesetting and Distributing Machine Company. New York: 1865. Royal Folio. pp. 246. Profusely illustrated with mechanical engravings.”

What the company did not tell its stockholders was the fact that the one hundred copies of this edition cost approximately $11,000 to set and print!

Leave a Reply