Ottmar Mergenthaler: 10 things to know about Linotype’s inventor
1. A true visionary and a pioneer in communication, Ottmar Mergenthaler revolutionized the art of printing with the Linotype machine. Prior to his invention, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages.
2. Mergenthaler hailed as the second Gutenberg in the history of printing for all the right reasons was born on May 11, 1854, in Hachtel, Württemberg Germany. The son of a poor village school teacher who moved soon after Ottmar's birth to Ensingen, on the Enz river, Mergenthaler’s first ambition was to become a watchmaker. Through the world of the watch, Mergenthaler “learned precision and recognized that one has to look at the mechanism as a whole if a watch is to function” as he recalled later.
3. “On October 26, 1872, the ‘Berlin’ docked in Baltimore, bringing 500 passengers in steerage. Among them was a slender, handsome young man of medium height with blue eyes and red-blonde hair, carrying only a wooden suitcase carved by peasants from his neighborhood.” On that exact day, his journey kicked off.
4. Mergenthaler was only 18 years old when he immigrated to the USA to work with his cousin August Hahl at his machine shop in Washington, D.C. and he obtained his first patent at the age of 20.
5. Four years later, after Hahl moved his shop to Baltimore, inventor Charles Moore approached Mergenthaler to redesign a faulty typewriter created to quickly publish legal briefs. Mergenthaler threw himself wholeheartedly at the project, and the result was the invention of the linotype—the machine that revolutionized the print industry and what Thomas Edison referred to as “the eighth wonder of the world.”
6. It took Mergenthaler ten years of tweaking before the first linotype debuted at the New York Tribune in July 1886. Here it was immediately used on the daily paper and a large book. The book, the first-ever composed with the new Linotype method, was titled, The Tribune Book of Open-Air Sports.
7. The machine accelerated the printing process by allowing typesetters to easily create molds of type, that is a “line o’ type,” using typewriter keys. Newspapers could run more efficiently and feature more pages and literally the Linotype machine shaped the world as we know it.
8. Linotypes continued in widespread use until the 1960s and 1970s when they were replaced by phototypesetting equipment and computers. Produced by his Mergenthaler Linotype Company, the machine remained a mainstay of the publishing industry until the 1980s.
9. Premiered in 2012, the documentary “Linotype: The Film” recalls the story of Mergenthaler and this “incredible machine that was once the lifeblood of printers all around the world” he invented.
Through the Linotype machine “newspapers could be printed daily, books could be produced faster and cheaper, and one typesetter could do the work of six men composing type by hand. The Linotype sparked an explosion in communication that can only be compared to the invention of the internet today.”
“The highly skilled operators of the Linotype are in a battle against time. If their skills are not passed along to a new generation of operators, the machine will die out completely. This stalwart group of former operators, historians, book printers, graphic designers, and concerned folks are doing everything they can to save the Linotype from the scrap yard” notes Douglas Wilson, director of the film.
10. Mergenthaler died at the early age of 44 in Baltimore on October 28, 1899.