JULY 3, 1886

The Linotype

By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
Published Spring 1986

Since the earliest days of printing many inventors throughout the world had labored unsuccessfully to devise systems or mechanisms to replace the tedious task of sticking, justifying and distributing the stubborn individual metal pieces of foundry type.

One hundred years ago-on July 3, 1886-the Linotype was first utilized commercially, when it cast type slugs for an edition of that day's New York Tribune. Although the machine was not perfect in every way, it proved the feasibility of the individual circulating matrix for casting lines of type composition.

Its inventor, Ottmar Mergenthaler, a German emigrant, had experimented tirelessly since 1876 with a number of different mechanisms with the ultimate aim of devising a system that would set type faster and more economical than by hand.

In 1885 he demonstrated his "Blower" linecasting machine to a publisher's syndicate headed by Whitelaw Reid of the N.Y. Tribune. Enthusiastic with the operation of the linecaster, the group paid $300,000 to gain control of the machine. Plans were to first build a dozen machines for the New York newspaper.

Sometime in June of '86, the new machine, encased in a huge wooden box, was was pulled up with a block and tackle to the ninth floor of the Tribune composing room. Eventually 32-year-old Ottmar and his machinist, Charlie Letsch erected the machine and soon had it in operation.

One could speculate that the Tribune hand compositors were impressed by the wonderfully complicated mechanism-a fabulous collection of gears, pulleys, cams, levers,'screws, bolts and what not.

Most printers were antagonistic to any mechanical contrapation devised to compose type matter. They believed that no machine would be able to "think" and replace the human compositor. They only saw in Mergenthaler's invention, another attempt to eliminate their chances to earn a living. They scoffed at the claims that Mergenthaler's machine could set as much type as could six hand compositors.

Other than the fact that July 3 was the day before Independence Day, it was probably just another day to most people. But to the few men hovering around the curious machine in the "Trib's" composing room, it would be called the second most important event in the history of printing. The first being Gutenberg's invention of movable type.

History reports that once his machine was adjusted, Mergenthaler sat in front of it and keyboarded eight words. Historians fail to reveal just what those immortal words were. Apparently there had been no plan for a dramatic phrase such as Samuel Morse used when he firsi telegraphed his first four words: "What hath God wrought?"

Mergenthaler fingered the keys, causing matrices to assemble in front of him. Words were separated by wedge spacebands. When the assembler was full, a straight line delivery moved the line of matrices to a position in front of the mold disk.

Clanking away, a bar rose, driving the spacebands up, justifying the line. The metal pot then rocked forward and a plunger forced molten lead into the mold and against the matrices, casting a slug of type. After being trimmed, the slug slid into the stick. The matrices continued on the elevator to the distributor which returned them to their proper channels in the magazine.

Tradition has it that after a line of type had been set, Reid commented: "Ottmar, you've done it again! A line o' type." And so the amazing machine had a new name. Previously the linecaster had been referred to as the Mergenthaler, the Mergenthaler Printing Machine and the "Blower." This last name was due to the fact that the linecaster employed blasts of compressed air to move the matrices into the assembler.

The Linotype was pressed into service July 3, setting type for the editorial page and straight matter for other pages. Later it was employed to compose the type for a 500-page book published as a subscription premium: "The Tribune Book of Open-Air Sports."

By the end of the year a dozen "Blowers" were clanking away at the Tribune, "getting the lead out." Two years later the Tribune sold its Burr mechanical typesetters it had used prior to the arrival of Mergenthaler's Linotypes.

Curiously it wasn't until three years after the Linos had been on the job that the fact was reported in the columns of the Tribune!