March 26

The production record of the Wicks Rotary Type-Casting Company of Blacksfriar Road, London, records on this day in 1901 the firm cast in a single machine 319,284 pieces of minion (7-point) type, utilizing the labor of one man and an unskilled helper, plus a three-horsepower motor. The production for the entire month of March of this quartet was over eight million characters weighing six and one half tons of type metal.

An ecstatic report written by an American observer of the production of the Wicks Rotary Type-Casting Machine states in properly awed tones: “For quite two hours I watched this mechanism vomit type. In every sixty seconds a thousand perfect letters spouted from it. On one side of it a jet of molten metal played steadily; from the other side disgorged a stream of perfect printing types, pouring forth so swift the light gleamed along their surfaces as steadily as sunlight might glow on a spinning reel of ribbon. I saw a jet of metal furiously hot spurt ceaselessly through a mold positively cold; and after an hour of that terrific impact, the mold’s parts were chill as cool water. I saw metal at 700 degrees Fahrenheit changed within the two-hundredth of a second to type one held in one’s naked palm and felt no burn.”

What this enthusiastic chronicler did not see was that the Wicks machine had been passed by, and was, by 1901, just another piece of equipment made obsolete by the inventions of Ottmar Mergenthaler and Tolbert Lanston.

Frederick Wicks, a Glasgow Scotsman, had originally been on the editorial staff of The Times of London and had gone to Glasgow, Scotland to help found the Glasgow News, where he conceived the idea of a typecasting machine which could cast new types so quickly that the distribution of type would be unnecessary and would be accomplished by the metal pot. About 1889 Wicks returned to London to write novels and to develop his machine. He then formed a company which supplied types for The Times and for other periodicals and printers.

By the turn of the century the Wicks foundry was casting and selling some 200 tons of type each week for the English market, and he was ready to arrange for an American branch. An American newspaper publisher, hearing of this, declared that the typefoundries of the United States might just as well go out of business. Wicks’ spokesman in America described their patron as a genius: He had known nothing about typefounding when he “conceived his invention.” They mentioned that he was without reverence or fear—”reverence for the accepted traditions and the laws of mechanics, fear of the difficulties which might arise in disregarding them.”

Lucien Legros, co-author of the informative work on typefounding and composing machines, Typographical Printing Surfaces, who knew Wicks personally, wrote of his attempt to change some of Wicks’ ideas concerning the mechanics of the typecaster, to no avail. These problems were primarily related to casting temperatures, but even if Wicks had listened to advice, his machine was doomed to obsolescence by the concept of composing and casting in the same machine as was successfully proven by the Linotype and Monotype machines, which had already been perfected.

The high cost of constructing the Wicks Rotary Type-Caster was a factor in the failure of the typefoundry, along with the technical difficulties encountered in casting different sizes of type, which required constant adjustment for set widths. These problems were so costly that the financial backers of Wicks became impatient for a return on their investment and withdrew their support.

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