Pioneers of Printing: Ottmar Mergenthaler

Thanks to his invention, Ottmar Mergenthaler is also called a second Johannes Gutenberg. The Linotype made it possible to produce books and newspapers much faster and cheaper.


Did you know that prior to Ottmar Mergenthaler’s invention of the linotype machine, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages? Like the other pioneers of our series “Pioneers of Printing” such as Alois Senefelder and Tolbert Lanston, he revolutionised not only the art of printing but also our industry. Thanks to his invention, Mergenthaler is also called a second Johannes Gutenberg. It is high time to get to know the man behind the linotype machine better.

Who Was Ottmar Mergenthaler

Ottmar Mergenthaler was born in May 1854 as a son of a village teacher in Hachtel, Germany. His technical understanding was spotted early, but due to financial reasons, his father was not able to fulfill his wish of becoming an engineer. At the age of 14, Mergenthaler became an apprentice watchmaker in Bietigheim at the company of a relative named Ludwig Hahl. After four years of working at Hahl’s company, he emigrated to Washington D.C. In 1876, Hahl’s son August relocated his business to the United States, more precisely to Baltimore. Mergenthaler moved there and immediately found an employment at Hahl’s shop where his technical talents were recognized soon.

Coincidences Define Mergenthaler’s Invention

With much commitment to work, Mergenthaler became co-owner of Hahl’s company. One day, Charles Moore, who held a patent on a typewriter for newspapers, entered the shop. Moore’s model was designed to replace type setting by hand, but as it did not work as planned, Mergenthaler was asked to correct the defects. Although being sure that it would never perform satisfactorily, he worked on improving it. Two years later, the design was further developed in a way that the machine stamped letters and words on paper matrix. The improvement did not satisfy Mergenthaler, so he established his own shop and pursued private efforts at a solution.

By July 1884, Mergenthaler had built the first direct-casting Linotype, which was patented in August and produced by the National Typographic Company from December on. Two years after Mergenthaler obtained the patent, a Linotype was used to compose part of 3rd July’s issue of the New York Tribune. This was the machine’s breakthrough and it was quickly spread throughout the United States and abroad. In 1888, Mergenthaler withdrew from the company manufacturing the Linotype, but his interest in his invention remained as strong as before.

Mergenthaler’s Machine: A Milestone For The Printing Industry

With Linotype machines, a new era in printing techniques and technologies began because it was possible to produce books and newspapers much faster and cheaper. Until the 1980s, when techniques such as phototypesetting and desktop publishing appeared, Mergenthaler’s method was a pretty common. Meanwhile, Linotype machines can still be found in small printing houses, yet his invention led to an epochal development in the printing industry and he became a member of the “National Inventors Hall of Fame”.

In 2005, after a series of mergers and reorganizations, the business of Mergenthaler Linotype Company was acquired by Monotype Imaging Holdings, Inc.. As you can see, his invention still influences our industry.

What about you: How does his invention affect your working life? Leave us a common with your experience?

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