The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Otto Mergenthaler
Otto Mergenthaler pic
Otto Mergenthaler, article title

…That's what Thomas Edison called Ottmar Mergenthaler's invention.

You're right; he's not a Baltimore author. But without him, most Baltimore authors-and authors everywhere-would have had a harder time getting published. Ottmar Mergenthaler, who spent much of his life in Baltimore, made a major advance in printing technology-he invented the linotype-which enabled printers to create and assemble type far faster than could have been done previously. And that meant that publishers could print books, newspapers, magazines, and other work much faster than before, and with the time they saved, they could print a lot more than they could have before.

Born near Stuttgart, Germany, Mergenthaler rejected his father's wishes that he go into the family business (so to speak) and become a teacher, choosing instead to work with machinery and make mathematical instruments. After spending four years as a watchmaker's apprentice, he moved to America in 1872, arriving at Baltimore's Locust Point, and went to work in Washington, DC for the watchmaker's son. Within two years, the shop had moved to Baltimore and Mergenthaler had become shop foreman. His first major project was designing a machine that would speed up the steps that court stenographers went through in transferring shorthand to type.

Fascinated with the complexities of mechanizing the typesetting process, Ottmar Mergenthaler opened his own shop in 1883 where he designed and built a series of typesetting machines. The first machine that was used commercially, known as "The Blower," was demonstrated in the New York Tribune's composing room in 1886. According to Mergenthaler's son Herman, "When Tribune publisher Whitelaw Reid (later U.S. ambassador to England) saw Ottmar type on the keyboard and shortly after a thin metal slug bearing several words slid down into a tray, he exclaimed, 'Ottmar, you've done it! A line o' type!' Thus the Linotype machine was born." (Ok, so it was no "Watson, Come here, I need you" or "What hath God wrought?" but 'twill do.) Within four years, the Tribune had a dozen Linotype machines and had published a 500-page book (The Tribune Book of Open Air Sports) which contained this note: "This book is printed without type, being the first product in book form of the Mergenthaler machine which wholly supersedes the use of movable type." Baltimore's Friedenwald Co (later the Lord Baltimore Press), by the way, was the first book company to use Mergenthaler's machine.

As a result of his cost-, labor-, and time-saving machine and the attention it got via the Tribune, Mergenthaler's business increased: he enlarged his Camden Street shop and expanded to an additional building on Preston Street to handle the flood of orders.

In 1881, Mergenthaler married and over the next several years had four children. In 1894, he contracted tuberculosis and moved to Saranac Lake, NY for treatments, living in Robert Louis Stevenson's former home. Two years later, unable to stand the cold, he moved to the Southwest, first to Prescott, Arizona, and then to Deming, New Mexico. He returned to Baltimore in late 1897 after a fire destroyed his New Mexico house and the manuscript of his just-completed autobiography. Ottmar Mergenthaler died less than two years later at age 46.

Herman Mergenthaler said this about his father:
The history of printing, which some say dates back to 868, is crowded with the names of many men who have made extraordinary contributions to it. But two men-two giants-stand out in bold relief. They are Johann Gutenberg and Ottmar Mergenthaler.

By 1904, there were 10,000 Linotypes in use; by 1954, the centennial of Mergenthaler's birth, that number had skyrocketed to 100,000, produced by plants in Brooklyn, London, and Berlin. In the 1930s, the Linotype corporation began acquiring the rights to typefaces, moved into phototypesetting in 1960s and by 2000 had shifted from hardware to software. Today, Linotype, the company that Ottmar Mergenthaler started, is one of the world's largest type font libraries, including standbys such as Baskerville, Helvetica, Optima, Palatino, and Univers. Mergenthaler reaped virtually none of the profits from his invention, however, having agreed at an early stage to accept a $50 buyout royalty rather than an ongoing percentage of the machine's sales.

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