The eighth wonder

Appreciating an engineering marvel that impressed even Edison

Issue: "California: Bellwether state," Oct. 24, 1998

As the mid-point of the fall months approaches, not much seems to be working very well at all. Congress, virtually ignoring most of its important work, is heading home for the last few weeks of election campaigning. The economy's roller-coaster signals are scaring the daylights out of big investors and little business people alike. And somebody's loading the projector with the fifth reel of a terrible war movie from southeastern Europe.

So I'm choosing this week, when nothing else seems to be working well at all, to make good on my promise here two months ago to describe for you something that did work wonderfully well-for a very long stretch of time. I'm referring to the Linotype machine.

Ottmar Mergenthaler was a German watchmaker who at the age of 13 repaired the clock in the tower of the village Lutheran church-a timepiece that had been useless for years. As a young adult, he emigrated to the United States, joining his stepbrother in the watchmaking business in Washington and then in Baltimore.

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The young Mergenthaler enjoyed mechanical challenges of all kinds. For 400 years since Johann Gutenberg, the process of assembling type by hand for both newspaper and book publishing had seen virtually no advances. Perplexed like hundreds of others with the tedious process first popularized in his native Germany by Gutenberg, Mergenthaler set a tough goal for himself: He would design a typesetting machine so brilliant in concept that it would never be improved upon, and build it so sturdily that it would never wear out. Extravagant though those targets may seem, history shows he came remarkably close to meeting them. The tragedy is that in the process, he wore himself out-and by some reports spent his last days mentally incapacitated.

But the machine Mergenthaler first unveiled in 1886 would explode the publishing world. Thomas Edison called it the "Eighth Wonder of the World." Prior to the Linotype, composing the words for just one page of a daily newspaper required 25 to 35 manhours of painstaking labor. The Linotype reduced that to three. Before Ottmar Mergenthaler, even big newspapers consisted of just eight pages. According to one historian, fewer than 300 personal libraries in the entire United States had as many as 1,000 books. Because of the remarkable leverage the Linotype brought to the spread of information, it might well be seen as the capstone of the industrial revolution. Certainly, it was a forerunner to the generation of computers that came most of a century later.

The Linotype, however, was not electronic, but marvelously mechanical. While others seeking a solution to the typesetting problem had gone the route of automated assembly of thousands of individual letters of precast type, the Mergenthaler breakthrough idea was to cast fresh type, one line at a time, out of molten lead.

He did so by creating a comprehensive set of tiny brass molds, each about the size of half a stick of chewing gum. Up to 1,100 of these molds stood at attention in an overhead storage tray, waiting to be released at the command of the operator's keyboard, dropped to a conveyor belt, and assembled in order with several dozen similar molds in a single line. The line of molds was then ingeniously placed in front of a pot of molten lead. At precisely the right moment, a plunger filled the molds with what immediately became a very hot "line of type"-a whole number of which queued up to form a column or "galley" of type. A competent operator could produce in excess of two galleys, or newspaper columns, each hour. (Oh yes, and meanwhile those tiny brass molds were mysteriously elevated away from the lead pot and automatically sorted out into the overhead tray to be used all over again a few seconds later.)

The differences between a Linotype and the Macintosh computer on which type is being set for this column are dramatic. That set of 1,100 brass molds, with the carefully machined case that held them, cost over $1,000 even in the 1950s when I operated a Linotype-and still offered only two fonts of type in a single size. If you wanted those same two fonts in a different size, that was another $1,000. So a $25,000 investment didn't begin to offer the variety and flexibility a modern laptop computer offers. And talk about laptop: The Linotype was as big as a small room, and weighed a ton or more.

But the place where a Linotype totally outdistanced a computer was that you could watch every single thing the Linotype did. Nothing was hidden away in a plastic case, and nobody explained it with unintelligible comments about lots and lots of miniature electronic switches that were either on or off. I could understand a Linotype-and that's why I marveled at it.

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