May 11

In the tiny village of Hatchel (pop. 400) in Germany was born this day in 1854 a man destined to revolutionize the printing industry of his time. Ottmar Mergenthaler was the son of parents who were both teachers. It was their desire that he also train for that profession but since the boy was more interested in mechanics, he was apprenticed to a watchmaker. At the close of his period of indenture he decided to emigrate to the United States. His employer’s son was engaged in the manufacture of instruments in Baltimore, so young Mergenthaler journeyed to that city and went to work for the younger Hahl, becoming foreman of the shop within two years.

It was to this shop that James O. Clephane, a public stenographer, came with a model of a typewriter in which he had become interested. Unfortunately it was a failure, a fact attributed to poor workmanship in the model. He brought the machine to Hahl’s shop where young Mergenthaler examined it and believed that he could eliminate the flaws. The device printed characters on a paper ribbon which was then transferred to a lithographic stone for printing. Mergenthaler improved the model, but its basic difficulties remained.

Clephane, believing the lithographic method to be at fault, next suggested that the machine be adapted to impressing letters into a papier-maché strip in order to form a matrix for the casting of the characters to form a stereotype. Mergenthaler did not have any faith in this idea, but he built the machine Clephane directed. It worked, insofar as the impression was concerned, but the problem was the casting of metal. At this point Mergenthaler removed himself from the development but Clephane worked for several more years on this device.

In 1883 Mergenthaler left the Hahl shop and set up his own establishment. His first customer was the same Clephane who still was convinced that a type machine could be developed. Mergenthaler decided to adapt the matrix impression to an entire line and built a machine which worked upon that principle. The finished model was the first machine to bear his name. Since there were still defects, another model was constructed, and this was the last one to utilize the principle of a papier-maché mold.

Mergenthaler next tried metal matrices to form the characters of the line, and in 1884 built a machine which produced a finished line of type. The justification was performed by hand, a laborious process. The following year the wedge-shaped steel band, the invention of Jacob W. Schuckers, was incorporated into the machine. Then Mergenthaler added a distribution system by which the matrices could be used over and over again.

On July 3, 1886 the machine was demonstrated in the office of the New York Tribune with the inventor at the keyboard. Whitelaw Reid, the publisher, took the first slug which emerged from the machine, calling it a line of type and thereby giving the machine its name.

Thus a dream of scores of inventors was brought to fruition—the fully successful and economical mechanization of typesetting. Mergenthaler was amply rewarded for his efforts, living in considerable affluence before his early death in 1899. There have been numerous stories that the inventor ended his career destitute, but actually he became a millionaire. A director of the Mergenthaler firm, talking before a group of printers in 1908, told them that Mergenthaler’s heirs had received not less than $50,000 a year in royalties from the company since the inventor’s death.

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