May 13

In the Mohawk Valley village of Little Falls in upstate New York was born this day in 1844 a boy named Linn Boyd Benton. He was destined to live for eighty-eight years and to add considerably to the technological advancement of the printing industry. Benton’s father was a lawyer who became interested in a career as a newspaper publisher, moving to Milwaukee in 1853 to assume the editorship of the Daily News of that city. Through this association young Benton was first introduced to the printer’s trade. His “formal” education was obtained during two years at Galesville College, followed by private tutoring in Latin and Greek, all of which was completed by his sixteenth year. He later acquired greater proficiency in a printing office in La Crosse, Wisconsin when his father was named a circuit judge there.

Deciding that the compositor’s art was not to his liking, Benton became a bookkeeper for the Northwestern Type Foundry, operated by a former partner of his father. When the foundry went bankrupt a short time later, Benton purchased it in company with a partner of his own. Thus at twenty-nine years of age he became the owner of what he once stated was “the worst equipped typefoundry in the United States.” The firm later took the name of Benton, Waldo & Company. By this time the former bookkeeper had discovered a passionate interest in precision mechanics and in its application to typefounding. Out of his experiments came the idea of “self-spacing” types.

In this system all of the characters of the font were assigned to six unit widths, as against the thirteen or fourteen of standard types. The set widths were in multiples of one-sixth of the body, which with the spaces of the same multiples allowed for automatic justification. According to Bullen, the types were tested by the Curtis Publishing Company of Philadelphia. A compositor named Stoddard was chosen for the trials. He set type about thirty-three per cent faster with the unit-width letters as against the non unit-width types. It was Stoddard who named the type. After being questioned about the justification he said, “I never thought of that—why, the damned thing spaces itself! “The system, while completely practical, foundered upon the principle of good letter proportion, since necessarily each character had to conform to the unit system, creating a letter of questionable aesthetic value.

Benton next turned his attention to the invention of a type-setting machine. Faced with the problem of having to cut some three thousand punches, with no punch-cutters available, Benton designed a machine to perform this laborious task. Thus he freed the typefounders of their dependence upon hand-cut punches, almost four and one-half centuries after the invention of movable types. Based upon the method of the pantograph, the Benton punch-cutter was patented in 1885 and was an immediate success.

Without this device the composing machines being developed during the same period could scarcely have been practical. The machines of Mergenthaler and Lanston needed a rapid method of punching matrices in order to sell them in quantity to accompany the machines, and hand-cutting the punches would have been impossibly laborious. The Benton machine was therefore purchased for this purpose by both the Linotype and Monotype firms. The same device, with variations, is now used by all of the world’s typefoundries and manufacturers of composing machines.

When Benton’s foundry was merged with the American Type Founders Company in 1892, he brought his machine with him to New York. The first type to be cut there was the famous Century type, in collaboration with Theodore Low De Vinne. The machine was later adapted to the direct engraving of matrices, the practice now universally followed by the typefounders.

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