February 3

The Monotype Composition Caster & its inventor Tolbert Lanston

Born on this day in Troy, Ohio, in 1844 was the American inventive genius, Tolbert Lanston, the producer of the successful typesetting machine, the Monotype.

Leaving school at fifteen years of age, Lanston worked in Ohio and Iowa before volunteering for service with the Union Army during the Civil War. After this term he was appointed to the Pension Office in Washington, where he served for twenty-two years as chief of four different divisions within the Bureau. During this time he also studied law, receiving admittance to the bar and actually practicing this profession on a part-time basis. In addition to all this activity he was tinkering with machinery and exercising his bent for invention.

Such items as adjustable horseshoes, a mail bag lock, an adjustable hydraulic dumb waiter, and an adding machine were all successfully developed and were patented before Lanston began to experiment with a type-setting machine. His interest in printing sprang from his friendship with an army officer whose father was a newspaper publisher and who helped finance the development of Lanston’s machine.

In 1885 Lanston applied for a patent on a typesetter. It was granted in 1887. This machine embodied a unique approach which is now considered to be an integral part of present-day electronic typesetting equipment; that is, the separation of the keyboarding operation from that of typecasting. Lanston’s keyboard delivered two perforated tapes which contained the necessary information for justification of a line of type in addition to the selection of the characters to be cast. In his original machine, however, type was not cast but was impressed into pieces cut from type-high metal strips. One of the punched paper ribbons set this strip in motion and controlled its movement in accordance with the width of the character to be made. The single type was then cut from the strip automatically and impressed with a female die or matrice containing the desired character. The second punched tape positioned the die-case, which contained 196 matrices.

Following a great deal of work on the machine, Lanston became convinced that it was impractical and that the device should actually cast the type from molten metal. This idea he patented in 1897. He then perfected the keyboard to permit the use of just one punched ribbon, which positioned the matrices in the casting machine and delivered justified lines of type. His final patents, granted in 1897, represent the foundation of the present machine.

From this point, most of the development of the Monotype machine was in the hands of an engineer, J. Sellers Bancroft, who reduced its size and increased its speed while simplifying its operation. One hundred machines were produced from Bancroft’s model, the first being installed in the plant of Gibson Brothers in Washington, D.C. in 1898.

In 1899, the machine was manufactured in basically the same form in which it exists today, except for refinements. A few years later Lanston suffered a stroke which incapacitated him until his death in 1913.

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