During the 400-plus years between Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type and the advent of personal computers, one of the most significant innovations in publishing was Ottmar Mergenthaler’s linotype machine.
Mergenthaler was a watchmaker and inventor born in Hachtel, Germany, in 1854. He immigrated to America in 1872 at age 18, arriving in Baltimore to work in Washington, D.C., at a shop owned by his step-cousin, August Hahl. Mergenthaler inspected and repaired clocks in government buildings around Washington. In Hahl’s shop, he machined knives and other tools for customers. A talented designer with a natural sense of engineering, Mergenthaler received his first patent at age 20.
Hahl and Mergenthaler – who was made co-owner – moved their shop to Baltimore, and made a specialty of fabricating patent models. At the time, the Patent Office required applicants to submit a model of their invention, a working model no larger than a foot in any dimension Today these exquisite miniature patent models are valuable collector’s items.
In 1876, a customer named Charles Moore asked Mergenthaler’s help with a problem. Moore held a patent on a typewriter intended to eliminate the need for typesetting. But he couldn’t get it to work. Mergenthaler recognized the flaws in Moore’s design, and spent two years improving it, eventually producing a typewriter that stamped letters onto cardboard.
He then spent the next eight years perfecting a machine that automatically set metal type. For hundreds of years, all printed matter had been produced the same way – with blocks of metal or wood set in a row by hand; a slow, painstaking and laborious process. Prior the invention of the linotype, no newspaper in the world was longer than 8 pages.
Mergenthaler’s machine was a huge, noisy beast six and a half feet tall, five feet wide, and five feet deep. A linotype is hot and loud, a clanking array of levers and buttons that produces a line of type cast in lead. The linotype, faster than a dozen typesetters working simultaneously, revolutionized publishing.
The first linotype was installed at the New York Tribune on July 3, 1886. Although controversial when introduced – typesetters and sympathetic unions protested losing their jobs to automation, and Mergenthaler was viciously attacked in print throughout the U.S. and Europe – efficiency ultimately won out.
Shortly after his technological tour de force, Mergenthaler contracted tuberculosis. Although ill, he worked ceaselessly to improve his linotype design until his death two years later on October 28, 1889, only 44 years old.
Had he lived longer, Mergenthaler would doubtlessly have produced more inventions and likely joined the ranks of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, and Harvey Firestone as legendary American innovators.
Mergenthaler’s memorial was held at Zion Church of the City of Baltimore, where the family attended services. The chandelier and four wall sconces adorning Zion Church’s library were a gift from Mergenthaler’s widow and are said to have hung in the family’s home at 159 W. Lanvale Street in Bolton Hill.
Today the Zion Church has one of the strangest items found in stained glass; in the window by the stairs near the sanctuary entrance is Mergenthaler’s linotype machine.
Baltimore’s vocational high school was named after Mergenthaler, and Mergenthaler Hall on the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University was constructed in 1940-41 with money from Emma and Eugene Mergenthaler, the inventor’s widow and son.
You can see a working linotype machine at the Baltimore Museum of Industry.
Mergenthaler is buried at Loudon Park Cemetery at 39° 16′ 44.20 N 76° 40′ 46.73″ W.