For most people, the word Linotype rings a bell, but they may not be able to place it. If they are familiar with it, it is because there are several fonts on their computer that contain the word. There is reason for this. They are made by a German company called Linotype GmbH. Like several other companies that manufacture fonts, Linotype started out making typefaces for printing presses long before there were computers. Linotype—or rather Ottmar Mergenthaler, the company’s founder—got into the typeface business because they had invented a typesetting machine that used them.
From Gutenberg on, each letter of any printed page had to be set, kerned, and justified by hand. Not to mention that this all had to be done backwards. Even with a room full of “compositors” (people who set type) setting the type for a novel could take weeks. Daily newspapers could only print as much news as could be typeset by their offices before it got dark. Even as the actual printing sped up and demand for printed material skyrocketed, the whole process was hampered by the lengthy process of typesetting. So by the 19th century, many inventors were working on a way to automate this process.
Writers and publishers alike wanted to see the bottleneck of typesetting disappear. So many of them began investing in inventors who claimed to be able to overcome this problem. Mark Twain actually invested (and lost) substantial amounts of money into a machine called the Paige Compositor. Like other machines, the Paige Compositor mimicked the work of the human typesetter, laying a block for each letter in its place. Unfortunately, this meant that it was extremely complex and difficult to service. This theoretically sped up the process by leaps and bounds but remained too impractical to reach wide acceptance.
During a 10 year period between 1876-1886 Mergenthaler, a German immigrant and watchmaker, and an engineer named James O. Clephane came up with a machine that fared better than most of the other machines intended to set type. The Linotype machine would line up brass blocks, called “matrices,” stamped with letters at the press of a key from a typewriter keyboard. The machine would then adjust the spacing between the letters to the proper justification, and cast the whole line at the same time in molten metal. The machine would then spit out a finished “line o’ type” (hence, the name) and return the matrices back to the part of the machine where it came from. Since these lines were in the order they were typed, and appeared the way they were intended, all that was left was to place them along side the other items to be printed. Even more, because the line was being cast as a negative impression of the matrices, the matrices were placed (from the operator’s point of view) in the correct order so that mistakes could be caught much more easily. The whole process became much faster.
Of course, because many others were working to create an invention that filled the same purpose, similar machines came about. The only machine that could compare to the job was the Monotype machine. It functioned in a very similar way to the Linotype. The major difference being that it molded each character separately. The Monotype also required two operators. The text was typed into one unit, which punched codes for each letter into a strip of paper that was fed into the other unit. The second, or “casting” unit would read the codes and produce the type from it. While popular in Europe, it was not as popular in North America. While fixing mistakes was easier on the Monotype, both new methods of typesetting produced less errors, so this advantage was minimized. Additionally, the extra labor and space required for its operation negated the streamlining that American printers had been looking for in the new machines. Though in every respect comparable to the Monotype, the LInotype was seen as more convenient, and therefore, adopted in larger numbers.
Sean Jennett, Pioneers in Printing: Johann Gutenburg, William Caxton, William Caslon, John Baskerville, Alois Senefelder, Frederick Koenig, Ottmar Mergenthaler, Tolbert Lanston (London: Routledge & Paul, 1958) 153-155.
ECU Digital Collections, “Linotype operator,” February 17, 2009, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/ecu_digital_collections/3288368409/.
Brendan Wilkinson, “Hot Metal,” August 10, 2008, Flickr, http://www.flickr.com/photos/brendanwilkinson/2751360396/.