Ottmar Mergenthaler

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Ottmar Mergenthaler


German-American Inventor

Ottmar Mergenthaler revolutionized the distribution of data. His Linotype machine expanded the length of newspapers, which made more information available to the reading public.

Ottmar Mergenthaler was born in 1854 in what would eventually become part of the nation of Germany. His family background prepared him well for the life of an inventor. It created an early love of education and instilled the qualities of self-discipline and curiosity. Ottmar began his education at the school where his father taught. He was exposed to a strong German curriculum, which included an emphasis on science and technology. At home the Mergenthaler children were expected to help with the daily chores. This helped him to develop a disciplined mind and spirit.

When he reached the age of 14 he was expected to begin the training that would prepare him for a teaching career. Ottmar informed his parents that he was not interested in teaching, but that a life in technology was more to his liking. He and his family finally agreed on an apprenticeship with his uncle in watch- and clock-making. Ottmar was a very successful apprentice, but he was still not satisfied. On his own initiative he took classes in mechanical drawing and drafting in the evenings and on Sundays. This training would pay off later in his career by allowing him to understand the workings of highly technical machines.

Upon completion of his apprenticeship Ottmar decided to immigrate to the United States. This decision would be the turning point in his life. His cousin ran a company that made electrical instruments in Washington, D.C. He traded part of his future labor for passage and arrived in America ready to begin his new life. Washington was the location of many important government agencies. The best inventors in the country lived and worked there. This was Ottmar's true training grounds, where he was exposed to some of the best technological minds in the country.

In 1873 the nation began to experience the first great economic downturn of the second Industrial Revolution—which began in the latter half of the nineteenth century. By 1876 most of the business community was feeling the effects of the economic problems. Ottmar took advantage of the situation and made himself available as a consultant for the development of new technologies. One day an inventor came in looking for assistance with his new writing machine. Ottmar solved the problem, but he also began thinking about the practical application of this new concept. His work would eventually lead to the invention of the Linotype machine.

Before Mergenthaler's invention, all the type for a newspaper had to be done by hand. This process was long, tedious, expensive, and resulted in newspapers of under 10 pages in length. Ottmar's machine was controlled by a keyboard similar in concept to the one found with most personal computers today. A linotype operator could produce 4-7 lines of print a minute with his 90-character keyboard.

This innovation caused the greatest information explosion since Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1398-1468) invented movable type. Newspapers doubled and tripled in size. Most importantly, it allowed the average American to become a more informed citizen. Mergenthaler's success with the linotype coincided with the onset of the Progressive Movement in America. Great social critics, such as Upton Sinclair, were now able to get their vivid, in-depth accounts of political corruption and social poverty printed in great detail in newspapers and magazines across the country. The American people responded to this movement because they became better informed. It also made the corporations that ran the newspapers more powerful. More people purchased newspapers because of their increased quality, which gave the papers great power over the shaping of public opinion.

Ottmar Mergenthaler died in 1899 in Baltimore, Maryland. His greatest invention, however—the Linotype machine—remains a very good example of technology's impact on society. It helped set the stage for the great social movements of the twentieth century.


Ottmar Mergenthaler

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Ottmar Mergenthaler

Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899), the German-American inventor of the Linotype, revolutionized the printing industry with his remarkable typesetting-typecasting machine.

Ottmar Mergenthaler was born in Hachtel, Germany, on May 11, 1854. He became an apprentice watchmaker in Bietigheim at the age of 14. After 4 years there, he emigrated to the United States. He found immediate employment in the Washington, D.C., shop of August Hahl, where various types of scientific instruments, including a great many models of new inventions required for the patent application, were made. Mergenthaler's talents were soon recognized, and his services became much in demand.

Shortly after Hahl relocated his business to Baltimore in 1876, Mergenthaler was asked to correct defects in a writing machine devised by Charles T. Moore and James O. Clephane. The machine was intended to produce print by typewriting words upon a strip of paper, which would then be reproduced by a lithographic process. Mergenthaler corrected the defects in the model but became convinced that it would never perform satisfactorily. At Clephane's suggestion, Mergenthaler attempted to devise a stereotyping machine which would impress characters on a paper matrix; pouring molten metal over the assembled matrices would produce a stereotype plate for printing. By 1878 the machine was built but, as Mergenthaler had anticipated, difficulties were experienced in separating metal from matrix. The search for a reliable improvement over the laborious hand-setting of type continued.

By this time Mergenthaler was obsessed with the problem, and he pursued private efforts at a solution while continuing as a general instrument maker. In 1883 he established his own shop in Baltimore and built additional machines with paper matrices. Then he hit upon the idea of using metal matrices, casting type bars directly from them, one line at a time. After a line of matrices with indented characters was assembled and justified, molten type metal was introduced, producing a line of type ready for printing. All these processes, as well as the redistribution of the matrices, were performed by the single machine.

By July 1884 Mergenthaler had constructed the first direct-casting Linotype; it was patented in August, and in December the National Typographic Company was organized to manufacture it. On July 3, 1886, a Linotype was used to compose part of that day's issue of the New York Tribune. The machine's use spread quickly throughout the United States and abroad. Although Mergenthaler withdrew from the company manufacturing the Linotype in 1888, his interest in his invention remained as strong as before. He patented at least 50 improvements to it before his death.

Mergenthaler was a friendly, personable man. He delighted in his family and in his love of music. He died in Baltimore on Oct. 28, 1899, survived by his wife and four children.

Further Reading

The best sources for Mergenthaler's life and his invention are George Iles, Leading American Inventors (1912), and Thomas Dreier, The Power of Print—and Men (1936). The former contains a remarkably thorough, illustrated explanation of the Linotype in all its operations. See also Edward W. Byrn, The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century (1900), and Waldemar B. Kaempffert, A Popular History of American Invention (2 vols., 1924).

Additional Sources

Bellas, R. C., Ottmar Mergenthaler's marvel, Baltimore: Xavier Press, 1986.

Mergenthaler, Ottmar, The biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler, inventor of the linotype. recent findings, researched and edited by Carl Schlesinger; introduction by Elizabeth Harri, New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books, 1989. □

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