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2003-12, 340, Book Reviews, Jurgen Wegner

Book Review

Ottmar Mergenthaler: the man and his machine. Basil Kaplan. (New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2000), xv, 244 pp. US$55.00

What started as a contemporary German businessman’s private initiative to preserve some of the technological history of printing is today a national foundation, the Museum für Druckkunst, Leipzig [Museum of the Printing Arts, Leipzig]. It occupies four floors of a large court-yarded industrial building in a leafy part of suburban Leipzig which formerly housed one of the German Democratic Republic’s [East Germany’s] most prestigious state printing enterprises. Today this printing museum contains a fabulous collection of printing equipment from the days of letterpress. One end of one floor is set solid with banks of typesetting machinery including many linotypes, large and small. There is even one from the former Soviet Union used to set Russian. What is special about this museum is that the equipment is in working order and used to set type which is then printed in-house. I spent a very interesting morning on the “grand tour”: iron hand presses by the row, platen presses, a working Wharfedale, and dozens of other items both familiar and rare. There are even three Typographs. To watch them dissing their type is something else again. But the linotype is without doubt the Rolls Royce of typesetting machinery. Precision engineering at its best and a joy to behold in action.

Now can there really be anyone who does not know what a linotype is? Or at the very least is familiar with the name? In its day – and its day was only the recent past – the linotype was almost as ubiquitous as the office photocopier. Large printeries maintained them by the floor-full to set type. Every medium-sized local newspaper had at least one, if not several. The linotype was essentially a twentieth-century phenomenon and fulfilled the role the PC now has in the printing industry. Generations of linotype operators generated millions of tons of type metal to produce letterpress type not only for newspaper production and other utilitarian items of printed matter, but books (including fine book production) as well. The world is full of ex-comps. but where are the tens of thousands of linotypes today? Unlike earlier printing machinery such as the iron hand presses, this kind of precision engineering requires continuous maintenance to remain serviceable. It cannot survive waiting for better times in someone’s bottom paddock as has sometimes been the case with hand presses. This will also be true of the comps. in a few years time. While some linotypes will no doubt remain in operation in Western museums and others as workhorses in developing countries, how quickly has a whole industry vanished not only from view but from collective memory. And the fate of printed information about the linotype has fared no better. One of my occasional interests is to locate and record printed information about the linotype. Of the thousands of items produced – books, journals, operating manuals, newsletters, parts books – how few survive in more than the odd copy in museum or personal collection, the victims of public and private apathy? How much of this historical documentation can even be identified today …?

Since the invention of printing its technology has been driven  by the ever increasing demand for printed matter, the need for quicker production as well as increased quantity. Today this role has been taken over by the computer, a strange and indirect progeny not only of the linotype but our demand for the rapid, easy and voluminous dissemination of the letters of the alphabet. Nineteenth century industrial, economic and social development was constrained by a system based on the need to cast and then compose individual letters in type metal. While comps. could rapidly set large quantities of work, ever since the beginning of the 19th century inventors have looked for a solution whereby not only the casting of type could be automated, but one which would also satisfy the need for casting type ready for the press. The linotype increased the rate of composition 4-5 times and was a boon to the production of newspapers in particular.

A patent was granted in 1822 to Dr William Church for the first known design of a typesetting machine as we know it. This was to increase to over 1500 patents by 1904 in the USA alone, a reflec tion of the complexity as well the urgency of the problem. Mergenthaler was German by birth and a watchmaker by trade, then immigrant electrical appliance and model builder with his cousin Hahl in New York, then American inventor and entrepreneur. His life displays that mixture of talent, tenacity and skill coupled with no small measure of luck. Originally Mergenthaler had no interest in or knowledge of the potential or demand for typesetting. By chance two other inventors consulted Hahl to develop the idea behind the typewriter (a recent innovation!) and stereotyping (an impression made on a soft master and used to duplicate the result). Their aim was to speed up the communication of information specifically in areas such as court reporting. There was a need, one possible solution presented itself, and the act of solving this puzzle led Mergenthaler on his way to design, perfect and produce the first commercially successful model, the Blower Linotype. This was originally installed and operated at the New York times in July 1886. Despite serious misgivings – it was by and large still a prototype – 100 were ordered, an indication of the demand for change as well as the profits to be made. What follows is not so much the manufacture of a machine but the perfection of a process designed to produce type for print cheaply, quickly and efficiently. The linotype fulfilled this role for most of the 20th century until it in its turn was superseded by another process … computer technology.

There has been no definitive biography of Mergenthaler, a life which is inconceivable without a biography also of his “twin”, the linotype. Kaplan has tried not only to produce such a work but also to clear up some of the myths surrounding his life and gaps in the record. This is perhaps not that surprising when you consider the shadowlands which the printing and related trades usually inhabit, as well as the secrecy, the ferment of commercial intrigue and innovation that was US trade and industry at this time. There is, for example, the wonderful story of the manager of the Mergenthaler Company buying up copies of Mergenthaler’s self-published biography for a tremendous sum due to unfavourable comments made in it about him. Mergenthaler had more than his share of problems to contend with: infringements of patents were rife, “sharp” business practices abounded, and commercial infighting all added spice to the life of someone struggling to overcome technical and design problems. The cost of innovation then as now was enormous; and not in the least in personal terms. The Mergenthaler Printing Company, for example, was set up with a working capital of one million dollars in 1886. This was a significant sum at the time. Profits, if realized, would be equally generous, but early machines also cost over $1,000 to make.

Kaplan avoids what could easily (and predictably) have been the centrepiece for such a biography: America, land of opportunity; immigrant lad makes good; resulting boon to commerce and to civilization. What needs to be spelled out (as Kaplan does) is that Mergenthaler and his machine are not two stories but one. What needs to be spelt out in this review is that Kaplan, quite naturally, takes Mergenthaler’s life and role as well as his context as a “given”. What also needs to be underlined is the key role this machine – and thereby Mergenthaler – played as a driver of 20th century social and industrial development. And their equally sad neglect today by all but a few specialists.

This book may at first glance not seem like your average “good read”, the kind of book you would reach for on that lazy, rainy Sunday afternoon. But it is a book well worth a second glance. There is plenty of detail on the twists and turns in his life, and the development of the linotype and its successful application. While it could easily have become a mass of technical and commercial data, it does also present a broader understanding to modern social and economic culture, a background to “book culture”. It may seem to be focussed on what is a rather technical, specialized and highly economic topic – and therefore of limited popular interest. The linotype, however, as an invention, a process, product and social force, underpins a great deal of the intellectual, cultural, not to mention economic and political, development of the 20th century. Here is the chance for the collector and reader to see the world that lives behind the printed page, behind information and the culture of print. Modern life would be inconceivable without Mergethaler’s invention: the linotype. As a work of biography it is equally interesting. Not just an idea, a man and the riches of success, but a picture of the mêlée that was industrialised society at the end of the 19th century, one into which Mergenthaler threw himself with such conviction and at such risk. It will give you a new perspective on the world of books and of men. Perhaps it could have benefited from a more extensive bibliography and more footnotes? And an expanded index? For anyone who buys books from overseas – and US$55 is not an expensive book – put this at the head of your list.

Jürgen Wegner

Some further reading:

Fine book pages: a portfolio of specimen pages from the distinguished books designed by Mr. Bruce Rogers for composition on the linotype, each specimen signature being reprinted on the same paper and in the same colors as the original volume, [New York], Printed by W.E. Rudge [for] Mergenthaler Linotype Co., [1929?].

The development of printers’ mechanical typesetting methods, 1822-1925, Huss, Richard E., Charlottesville. Published for the Bibliographical Society of the University of Virginia by the University Press of Virginia, 1973.

Specimen book of linotype faces, Brooklyn, N.Y., The Company, 1939, xxxix, 1215 p. Mergenthaler Linotype Company. A mammoth work of metal types then available.

Das Museum für Druckkunst in Leipzig, Leipzig, Schumacher-Gebler, Eckehart. Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Druckkunst, Leipzig, 2002.

Five hundred years of printing, Steinberg, S. H., New ed. rev. by John Trevitt, London, British Library, New Castle, DE, Oak Knoll Press, 1996. The latest ed. and also by Oak Knoll Books.

Copies of the original Penguin ed. were reprinted in large quantities and should not be hard to come by.

A concise chronology of typesetting developments, 1886-1986, Wallis, L. W. London, Wynkyn de Worde Society in association with Lund Humphries, 1988.

Geschichte der Typographie : Hand- und Maschinensatz im Wandel der Jahrhunderte, Wolf, Hans-Jürgen. Weissenhorn, Historia,1999.

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