Square Base Linotype Machine (1890)
International Printing Museum
the 1880s, Americans fed their voracious appetite for information
by reading more than 1,500 daily newspapers, a three-fold increase
in twenty years. Many technologies made this growth possible: the
telegraph helped gather news, steam-driven printing presses churned
out torrents of newsprint, and mechanical folders readied papers
for local delivery by newsboys and regional distribution by steam-driven
trains. But process of setting metal type remained essentially unchanged
since Johann Gutenberg invented printing circa 1450. Selecting from
about 110 different sorts of type, printers assembled the individual
letters into lines of text, then "justified" the lines
to fit a regular column width. The laborious, skilled work of hand
composition limited most 1880s newspapers to a practical maximum
length of eight or twelve pages. Even at that length, a phalanx
of compositors worked well into the night to ready the completed
forms of hand-set type for the presses in time to run off the morning
German-born instrument and model maker Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899)
came up with a radically new approach to the problem. Beginning
in 1882 in his Baltimore shop, Mergenthaler developed his ideas
in a series of prototypes. By 1886, his patented "Blower"
machine had attracted backing from a syndicate of newspaper publishers,
despite its poor reliability. In 1890, Mergenthaler's new Square
Base Linotype demonstrated the viability of the inventor's novel
approach to composition.
started by breaking fundamentally with Gutenberg no more
moveable type. Instead, the Linotype operator sat at a keyboard
of 90 characters and typed out the reporters' copy. With each keystroke,
the machine released a brass matrix (or mold) for that letter or
a blank band for a space, and it arranged the letters and spaces
into a justified line. Next the machine automatically tapped a reservoir
of molten pot metal (heated to 550 ° F, 288 ° C) to cast
a slug from the justified line of matrices, producing a single line
of type hence the machine's name. Each successive slug was
trimmed and ejected from the machine, forming columns of type ready
for assembly into pages for the press.
this process of mechanical typecasting was brilliant, the next stage
equaled its significance. After casting each line, the machine automatically
sorted the matrices, ready for reuse. Thus the Linotype eliminated
the time-consuming chore in hand composition of distributing individual
sorts of type after use.
Square Base Linotype had 5,000 parts, and it was expensive, selling
for $1,000. But the machine was reliable and durable, and it enabled
a five-fold increase in the speed of composition while offering
other sizeable economies. No wonder Thomas Edison called the Linotype
the "eighth wonder of the world." Thanks to its efficiencies,
the Linotype allowed further growth in the number, circulation,
and size of daily newspapers, while lowering costs in book publishing.
Its productivity improvements also aided compositors' efforts to
achieve a nine-hour working day.
all, the Mergenthaler Linotype Company sold 366 Square Base machines
to customers around the globe before its replacement by a long line
of improved designs, beginning with the Simplex in 1892. These durable
machines remained in use until photo-offset printing succeeded hot-metal
composition during the 1970s. The Square Base machine receiving
the ASME's designation as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark
was made in 1890 for the Providence (Rhode Island) Journal. One
of only two Square Base machines known to survive, it is displayed
at the International Museum of Printing in Carson, California.
as a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark on July 23, 2005.