'Every Printer His
Own Typefounder!'

By Fred Williams
Editor-Publisher, Type & Press
Fall 1986

Around the turn of the century Linotype and Monotype were battling each other for the business of selling printers mechanisms

to cast type. But within a short time a formidable competitor appeared on the scene–the reasonably-priced casting machine that could produce individual types of foundry quality.

The most successful and well-known of these mechanisms was the one invented by printer John Thompson. The popularity of this ingenious caster gave general acceptance to the somewhat fallacious idea of "every printer his own typefounder."

Many printers argued that the idea was not practical unless a printer used one size of type in enormous quantities. No printer could afford to stock the huge variety of faces and sizes possessed by the old-line foundries. (ATF had more than 4,000,000 matrices in its vaults). Neither could printers cast type as cheaply or as good as a foundry could do it by producing hundreds of the same font at one casting session. But many printers were taken in by the sales pitch.

John Smith Thompson's rise to success was typical of the late 19th Century printer ... learning the compositor's trade on newspapers ... gaining more knowledge "on the road" as a tramp and emerging as a "swift" and master of the Linotype. This was followed by heading his own business venture in addition to becoming a successful author, historian and researcher. In the later part of his life he operated a number of printers' supply outlets on the West Coast.

Thompson was born in Racine, Wis. in 1872. He began his printing career at age 12 as an apprentice comp. Soon he joined the hordes of tramps plying their trade from coast to coast. In 1892, while employed on the New Orleans Times-Democrat, he had the opportunity to learn operating a square base Linotype.

John took to the Lino like a duck to water-setting speed records on the machine. Later he began authoring a column on the machine in the Inland Printer as well as writing a number of books on the Black Art.

In spite of the early success of the Lino and the Mono, some printers believed there was the need of a simple, inexpensive machine that could cast individual sorts of type of foundry quality. Earlier,

David Bruce had invented a hand-cranked pivotal caster equipped with a force pump that yielded a superior product at speeds impossible on a hand caster. But the type had to be finished by hand.

The principle of the pivotal caster includes a frame that rocks back and forth, moving the mold to and from the pot nozzle. In conjunction with this movement, the combined operations of opening and closing the mold at appropriate times was accomplished.

About 1888 Hans Barth invented a caster that used harder metal and delivered finished foundry type. The Barth is used by American Type Founders Co.

The "Every Printer His Own Typefounder" idea was conceived in 1901 when the National Cornpositype Co. of Baltimore, placed on the market a typecaster based in part on the Bruce and Barth machines. It could cast 13 to 26 individual types per minute in from 6 to 36 point sizes from electrotyped copies of the faces of established foundries. The small uncooled and unlubricated mold resulted in the larger sizes of types to be hollow. It was claimed that body changes could be made in two to three minutes without skill or micrometer measurements.

It was said the Compositype could turn out an endless supply of type for printers at a cost much less than by purchasing it from a foundry. But the firm suffered a set back when the Keystone Type Foundry sued it for pirating its Caslon Bold series.

This machine was followed by the Nuernberger Rettig caster, made in Chicago. It used the principle of "Mason's Break"-the point of separation of the tang from the type foot extended up into the body. As the tang was detached in the machine, there was no need to groove the foot. In 1911 it was bought out by the Universal Machine Co.

Since 1903 John Thompson had been working on his version of a casting machine. Four years later, after building several experimental models, he unveiled his Thompson machine.

Thompson overcame the problem experienced in many type foundries -that of using a single machine with changeable molds, for various sizes, produced inferior type than using a different machine for each size.

The Thompson was in every respect a typefounding machine-casting type as well as decorative material, hollow "quotation" and corner quads, fractions and logotypes, from 5 to 48 point to American standards as well as special heights and body sizes to conform with Didot and Continental systems. The type, it was claimed aligned perfectly. While the Thompson firm offered a full line of mats, type could also be cast from matrices of other systems.

By utilizing appropriate matrix holders & molds, Linotype/Intertype, Ludlow, Compositype, Victortype; flat, cellular and Giant Monotype as well as some foundry matrices could be cast on the Thompson. An attachment allowed it to cast rules and spacing material from 2 to 18 point–an automatic device cutting any preset measure from 4 to 126 picas. Logos up to 4 picas wide could also be cast. Eventually a Thompson matrix renting service was established.

The Thompson Type Machine Co., had been formed by its inventor and several individuals, many of them officials of the Inland Printer Co. Capitalized at $100,000, the firm was based in Chicago with the stated purpose of manufacturing and selling the little typemaker. One model was placed on display with the promotion that every printer who handset type should cast his own as predecessors of the 15th Century had done.

Due to the fact that the Thompson could use Linotype mats was a strong inducement for printers to equip their plants with the machine. At the time Mergenthaler mats could be purchased for only three cents each and over 300 different faces from 5 to 14 point were available. Many of the faces included German, Greek, Russian and Hebrew. For display sizes, electrotype matrices could be had up to 14 point.

Most Thompson mats were electplated from foundry type. They listed about 30 series, from one to eight sizes per series. The company advertised they would make any face that's desired.

The casting speeds for the machine was determined by the size of type being cast. Speeds were: 48 point, 9-15 casts per minute up to 130-150 casts per minute for 6 point type.

A fully equipped Thompson was priced at $1500 - about half the cost of a Barth machine. Powered by a 1/4 -horsepower motor, it could be heated with gas, kerosene or gasoline burners.

Within a few years the busy little Thompsons could be found world wide in composing rooms, clanking away, getting the lead out.

In 1908 the Thompson company took over the Compositype firm and discontinued manufacture of of that machine. In the following year Thompson was granted wide U. S. patents and in 19 foreign countries. Factories were planned to enable the machine to be made abroad.

In 1912 the Universal Typecasting Machine Co. took over the Nuernberger - Rettig caster and continued its manufacture. Three years later, Phillip G. Nuernberger, inventor of the original machine, joined the Thompson Co.

In 1918 Thompson sold his interest in the company to the Universal Company, who in turn, 11 years later peddled it to the Lanston Monotype Company. Called the Monotype Thompson caster, production continued in Philadelphia until 1964 when manufacture was curtailed. Five years later Monotype itself was bought by American Type Founders.

After sale of his interest in his little caster, Thompson moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, operating several printers' supply firms before he retired.

From his home on the S.F. Peninsula, Thompson continued researching, writing and inventing, Most notable of his efforts, was his theory that Johann Gutenberg, before printing his famous 15th Century Bible, cast solid type slugs instead of individual types, as most scholars believe.

He based his findings on several points, including the absence of any "work-ups" in the pages of this Bible. He claimed that printers working later in the century, produced pages marred with a number of "work-ups." Scholars were impressed with the hypothesis, but they were not convinced, claiming that there were other simple explanations for the points he raised.

John Thompson died in San Mateo, Calif. in 1955-just 16 days after his 83rd birthday.

While it's true that photo comp has just about made hot type obsolete, a number of commercial and private foundries are still using the "marvelous and simple Thompson typecaster. The "personal" machine of John Thompson has been saved and reposes at Alan Ligda's Archive Press in Issaquah, Washington.

(Thanks to Panl Hayden Duensing, Richard Hopkins, Mac McGrew and Steve Saxe for their help with this article.)