Bullen on Mergenthaler (1922)

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Henry Lewis Bullen wrote the article "Linn Boyd Benton - The Man and His Work" for The Inland Printer, Vol. 70, No. 1 (October, 1922): frontis, pp. 60-64. It contains information not only on Benton but also on Ottmar Mergenthaler, the Linotype, and the relation between the Linotype and Benton. However, regrettably, several of the stories that this article relates are inaccurate. See the entry for this article in the Linn Boyd Benton Notebook for a reprint of it and pointers to analyses of various errors in it. This present Notebook analyzes the errors in its account of the history of Ottmar Mergenthaler and the development of the Linotype.

Bullen was a great figure in the history of printing, but he does Ottmar Mergenthaler a disservice in this article. Since Bullen was the collector of what was then the greatest typographical library in America, and since Mergenthaler had published his autobiography in 1898, Bullen might have been expected to know better.

Bullen says that "After several years of experiment and the expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars, Mergenthaler severed his connection with his employers, leaving them with a machine from which little if any profitable concerns could be realized." and "Mergenthaler seemed to have lost faith in the machine, as we may infer from the fact that when he left the employ of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company he sold all his stock in it for a small sum." (p. 62) These remarks give the impression that Mergenthaler was simply an irresponsible engineer in the employ of the Linotype company, wasting its money and abandoning the project. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mergenthaler was the primary inventor of the Linotype in both its prototype and fully developed (1890 Model 1) forms, and he devoted his life to it. He was in return treated shamefully by the syndicate led by Whitelaw Reid and its successors and died having received only a fraction of what was due to him from the success of the machine. Mergenthaler published his own account of this in his 1898 (auto)biography. The interested reader should consult Schlesinger's modern edition of this autobiography (which has extensive additional material) and also Kahn's biography, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and His Machine (2000) .

Bullen then writes: "Mergenthaler's linotype machine had no satisfactory justifying device. The spacing wedge now in use was invented by Schuckers and also (independently) by Rogers. The courts, after long litigation, decided that the spacing wedge used on the first few hundred linotypes ws an infringement upon Schucker's wedge, whereupon Mr. Dodge lost no time in purchasing that invaluable patent, with which the matrix-assembling machine was made entirely practicable." (62) This isn't quite right. Mergenthaler invented a double-wedge spaceband as well, independently of Schuckers. Mergenthaler filed his patent application for it on April 17, 1885 (during the initial development of the "Blower" Linotype, which was the first version of the Linotype which required spacebands). Schuckers, however, had filed 49 days earlier, on February 28, 1885. { Schlesinger, "A Talk ... on Ottmar Mergenthaler" (1994) } Of course, it is not certain that Bullen was aware that the double-wedge spaceband Mergenthaler illustrates in the drawing of the 1886 "Blower" Linotype in his autobiography was his own invention.

However, Bullen should have been aware that Mergenthaler also developed an alternative "spaceband," consisting of a single stepped wedge, in an attempt to circumvent the Schuckers patent. In his autobiography, Mergenthaler writes "In January, 1894, a perfectly practical method of justification by step justifiers had been devised by Mr. Mergenthaler which led to the construction of 225 machines of this class which were all made in Baltimore [that is, in Mergenthaler's own factory, not in the Brooklyn factory of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company.] ... but although the machines in question gave uniform and entire satisfaction, the [Mergenthaler Linotype] company now bought the wedge justifier, and paying therefor the enormous sum of $416,000 ..." (p. 69)

I have had the opportunity to see a surviving step justification spaceband in the collection of the noted Canadian linecasting dealer Don Black, and I must confess that I would not share Mergenthaler's optimism for it. Still, the fact that he was working on an engineering solution to the Schuckers patent problem (when Dodge simply threw money at it) indicates that he was hardly ignoring the matter.

Then Bullen writes: "Mergenthaler had made no provision for supplying the unlimited quantity of matrices which were required." That this is manifestly untrue is obvious when you look at the dates: the Blower Linotype had entered service in 1886, but the Linotype company did not come to rely upon Benton's pantograph until the 1888/1889 timeframe .

The matter of matrices occupied Ottmar Mergenthaler throughout this period. As he noted in his autobiography, "Probably the most difficult problem connected with the first manufacturing attempts was the production of the matrices at a price not prohibitive." After noting the opinion of the typefounder John Ryan that matrices could not be produced at a sufficiently low cost, Mergenthaler (writing in the third person) continues "... there was nothing left for Mr. Mergenthaler but to go ahead boldly and solve the problem himself. It required some thirty special machines and machine attachments to get up the required plant, and Mr. Mergenthaler for months devoted nearly his whole time to this part of the business, and after a while had the satisfaction of seeing the plant turn out matrices at a cost entirely satisfactory to all." (p. 29)

The details of the thirty-machine plant that Mergenthaler refers to are not clear. Schlesinger, however, has determined that during the first six months of operation the Blower Linotype was run using electroformed matrices (pp. 103-112 of his edition of Mergenthaler's autobiography). These were found to produce a high-quality result, but were subject to rapid wear. Subsequently Mergenthaler seemed to have employed hand-cut punches to make all-brass matrices. Mergenthaler admitted, however, that these were inferior to those later produced by the Benton engraver and observes in his autobiography that he "... soon discovered a need for such a machine, and failing to find anything in the market, he at once went to work designing an engraving machine. The work on this machine had already well advanced when [the discovery of the Benton machine caused] ... work on his design to be discontinued." (pp. 29-30)

Mergenthaler even continued in matrix development work after his connection with the Mergenthaler Linotype Company had been entirely severed. In the 1890s he developed a steel matrix. These were mentioned in his biography (p. 69) and advertised for sale in an 1898 Catalogue of Ott. Mergenthaler & Co., Mechanical Engineers and Machinists (reprinted in Schlesinger's edition of Mergenthaler's autobiography).

Finally, Bullen writes "We remember, as some of our readers may, the peculiar appearance of the New York Tribune when it was first set by linotypes. Each line had wrong font characters in it. There would be two or three kinds of letters e or c or t in each line, each change of character indicating the breakage of a punch."

Now it may be that Bullen was referring to the period from late 1886 to sometime around 1888 when hand cut punches were being used to make Linotype matrices; if this is so it is possible that his criticism is justified. But it is interesting to note that when Carl Schlesinger examined the first issue of the Tribune in which Linotype slugs were used (July 3, 1886), he had considerable difficulty in locating the portions of the front page in which they were used. (His analysis of this page, along with a facsimile of it, are contained in his edition of Mergenthaler's autobiography.)

1. Bibliography

Bullen, Henry Lewis. "Linn Boyd Benton - The Man and His Work" Inland Printer, Vol. 70, No. 1 (Oct. 1922): frontis, 60-64

Kahn, Basil. Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and His Machine New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 2000.

Schlesinger, Carl. "A Talk by Carl Schlesinger on Ottmar Mergenthaler, Inventor of the Linotype at the 1994 Conference of the American Typecasting Fellowship." (unpublished typescript dated 1993, with annotations from its presentation in 1994)

Schlesigner, Carl, ed. The Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler, Inventor of the Linotype. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll, 1989.

Mergenthaler dictated his autobiography in the third person to Otto Schoenrich and published it anonymously as the Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler and History of the Linotype: Its Invention and Development (Baltimore, MD: [for the author], 1898). Schlesigner's book is the authoritative modern edition of it, with the addition of significant additional editorial and historical material.

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