Ottmar Mergenthaler Portrait

Ottmar Mergenthaler Portrait

Ottmar Mergenthaler


Ottmar Mergenthaler arrived in the United States in 1872 with an extremely valuable store of technical know-how that he had developed as a watchmaker’s apprentice. Thirteen years later, he received a patent for his “Single-matrix” typesetting machine (i.e., the Blower), an invention that quickly changed the American printing industry, and, by extension, American culture as a whole. Eventually, the Linotype’s influence radiated beyond the U.S., leading to the Americanization of the British and international printing industries.


Ottmar Mergenthaler (born May 11, 1854 in Hachtel (today: Bad Mergentheim), Kingdom of Württemberg; died October 28, 1899 in Baltimore, MD) was part of a large wave of German immigrants who sailed to the United States and settled in Baltimore between 1861 and 1910. He arrived in 1872, at eighteen years of age, and started working for his step-cousin August Hahl, who ran a workshop for electrical equipment and patent models. It was during Mergenthaler’s time in Hahl’s workshop that he first discovered his true passion: print technology. In 1885, thirteen years after landing in the United States, Mergenthaler was awarded a patent for a typesetting machine that eventually became known as the Linotype. The invention was the result of a decade of intense engagement with mechanized typesetting machines and the surrounding literature. The Linotype represented a major milestone in the history of printing, and, by extension, the larger history of Mergenthaler’s time. His invention revolutionized the printing industry, making it possible to print faster and more efficiently than ever before. Ultimately, Mergenthaler’s Linotype opened a new chapter in the history of mass communication and determined the path of the printing industry for the next century.

Family Background

Ottmar Mergenthaler was born on May 11, 1854, in the village of Hachtel, in the northeastern part of the Kingdom of Württemberg. Today, Hachtel is part of Bad Mergentheim. Mergenthaler was the third of five children of schoolteacher Johann George Mergenthaler (1820-93) and Rosina (née Ackermann) Mergenthaler (1828-59).[1]

The genealogical roots of the Mergenthaler family can be found in Swabian agriculture. For generations, members of the Mergenthaler family, including Ottmar’s paternal grandfather, George Christoph Mergenthaler, had worked as farmers on small landholdings in the town of Hohenacker. [2] In choosing to become a teacher, Ottmar’s father, Johann, broke with family tradition.[3] Little is known about Rosina Ackermann aside from the fact that she was of petite bourgeois origins. Her father, Johann Christian Ackermann (1791-1853), worked as a teacher in Erbstetten and as a surveyor and architect on the side.[4]

In the autumn of 1854, Johann Mergenthaler was transferred from Hachtel to Neuhengstett, and in 1858, he was transferred once again, this time at his own request, to Ensingen, where Ottmar spent the majority of his childhood together with his siblings, Adolf (born 1851), Karl (born 1852), Karoline (born 1855), and Julius (born 1857). In 1859, when Ottmar was just five years old, his mother died. For the next two years, he was cared for by his maternal aunt Wilhelmine Ackermann. On February 12, 1861, his father married Karoline Hahl, who proved a good and loving stepmother to Ottmar and his siblings. In 1864, Karoline gave birth to a son, who only lived about three months; in 1868, she gave birth to another son, Friedrich, the last of Johann Mergenthaler’s children.[5]

The Mergenthaler family’s modest circumstances afforded Ottmar only limited opportunities for formal education; he received a primary education at his father’s school and nothing more. Still, he must have exhibited some sort of mechanical or technical aptitude, for his siblings nicknamed him “Pfiffikusmaerle,” an archaic expression that can be loosely translated as “crafty fellow” or “whiz kid.”[6] At age thirteen, Ottmar put his technical abilities on full display by secretly fixing Ensingen’s church clock, which had been broken for years and had been declared unfixable by watchmakers in nearby Stuttgart.[7]

In 1868, the year he left school, fourteen-year-old Ottmar managed, with the support of his stepmother, to secure a four-year apprenticeship as a watchmaker with her brother Louis Hahl. The apprenticeship was out of keeping with the wishes of Ottmar’s father, who wanted him to follow in his footsteps as a teacher. In the Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler, a work perhaps better described as the autobiography of Ottmar Mergenthaler as told to Otto Schoenrich,[8] Mergenthaler reflected upon this juncture in his young life. Describing himself in the third person, he recalled:

When young Ottmar arrived at the age of 14 he was to leave school and enter a seminary, where he too should receive his training as a teacher, but the boy was not in favor of this profession, and remembering that for years he had very successfully handled the rather rebellious village clock, and that he had done various work of similar nature, it gave him the idea that machinery was the thing he would feel most interested in. Instead of becoming a teacher, he now accepted an apprenticeship under the brother of his stepmother, Mr. Hahl, a watchand clock maker at Bietigheim, Wurttemberg, a town of about 4,000 inhabitants.[9]

During his apprenticeship, Ottmar lived with his step-uncle and his family in Bietigheim. According to the terms of the apprenticeship, Ottmar would provide his own tools, work for four years without pay, and even pay a small sum to his uncle. In return, he would receive room and board and, of course, training. He described his time with Hahl as follows:

The watchmaker occupation taught me precision above all. [ . . . ] I realized that if a watch is supposed to function, then the mechanism has to be viewed as a whole. [ . . . ]. A peaceful and jovial spirit reigned in the Hahl household, and even though the workday was long, one still had time for the pursuit of further general education and for recuperation. [ . . . ] The four years of my apprenticeship passed quickly and were profitable.[10]

Because of his willingness to learn, his disciplined nature, and his quick comprehension, Mergenthaler was soon able to draft technical drawings and prepare patent applications.[11] In fact, his technical skills became so advanced so quickly that his master, Louis Hahl, actually started paying him a year before his apprenticeship ended – an honor that Hahl bestowed on an apprentice for the very first time in his thirty-year career.[12]

The year 1872 saw both the end of Mergenthaler’s apprenticeship and his bold decision to join the waves of immigrants who were leaving Germany for American shores. For many, the decision to immigrate was prompted by political events, specifically the consequences of the Franco-Prussian War and the unification of Germany in 1871. Other common push factors included social and demographic changes at home. For many young men, the desire to escape military service in Otto von Bismarck’s newly formed German Reich factored heavily in the decision to immigrate.[13] Mergenthaler’s reasons for immigrating may have been slightly different, however. The capital of the United States was the seat of the patent office and was widely regarded as a mecca of the growing instrument manufacturing industry. Washington, DC, was also a metropolis of mechanics, a meeting place for countless designers, engineers, and inventors – and all of this appealed to Mergenthaler’s ambitions. Like his apprenticeship, his move to America was facilitated by his family network. August Hahl, the son of his master and step-uncle, Louis Hahl, had already immigrated to the United States, where he ran a workshop for electronic equipment and patent models in Washington, DC. Mergenthaler applied for a job with him and was accepted. August Hahl advanced the money needed for Mergenthaler’s passage, and Mergenthaler agreed to pay him back through work. On October 26, 1872, with $30 and a silver pocket watch, eighteen-year-old Ottmar Mergenthaler arrived at Locust Point in Baltimore (the second largest port of entry for immigrants at the time) on the steamship Berlin and travelled from there to Washington.[14] He started working for his step-cousin almost immediately. Mergenthaler had no previous experience in electrical instrument manufacturing, but he was a quick learner, and within two years, he took on a leading role in the shop, where he acted as a kind of manager and foreman.[15]

Outside of work, Mergenthaler wasted no time in building up a social network and becoming integrated into American society. At first, he could only speak German, but he devoted himself to learning English until he could finally speak it fluently, albeit with a guttural accent. In 1878, he was granted U.S. citizenship, and from then on he considered himself an American. His circle of friends included both Germans and Americans and, as Henry Thomas, one of his closest German friends, once remarked, Mergenthaler’s time in Washington was the happiest period of his life. As Thomas recalled:

Those formative years in Washington, Mergenthaler was wont to regard as the happiest of his life. He was one of a coterie of young Germans who lived together, sang together, and often took long walks together. Early on Sundays we were wont to stroll to Great Falls or Chain Bridge, halting at the farmhouse of a German friend. At his hospitable board we refreshed ourselves with clabber, potatoes in uniform, black bread and beer in moderation. Ottmar, reserved and almost silent with strangers, always let himself go in our company. [ . . . ] His voice, a fine baritone, was often heard in a repertory of German songs and ballads. [ . . . ] He gave promise of being hale and hearty at fourscore. We were all ambitious, but he brought it farther than any one of us all.[16]

Unfortunately, Mergenthaler’s time in Washington was limited. After the Panic of 1873, Hahl was forced relocate to Baltimore. Although Hahl had to lay off a number of his employees, he kept Mergenthaler on. At the time, Baltimore was an important industrial center. It was also a city in which the “German-American element” was very pronounced, particularly between the U.S. Civil War and World War I.[17]

In 1881, Mergenthaler became Hahl’s business partner. That same year, he married Emma Lachenmayer (1861-1934), the daughter of Württemberg sculptor and architect Louis Carl Lachenmayer and his wife Paulina Rosina Koener. Mergenthaler and his wife had met in the German singing group Liederkranz in Baltimore. The couple went on to have five children together.

Business Development

Industrialization, which was already well under way in America, laid the foundation for Mergenthaler’s revolutionary contributions to the printing industry. As mobility and the need for information continued to grow, publishers and printing press owners needed to produce and distribute printed materials faster than ever before. But in order to achieve greater speed and efficiency, certain problems in the typesetting process had to be addressed, namely the spacing of sentences, the filing away of letters after use, and the justification of text.

Mergenthaler had first become acquainted with the problems associated with mechanized typesetting during his time with August Hahl. In August 1876, Virginia inventor Charles T. Moore had come to Hahl’s workshop with a typewriting machine that he had designed himself. A transfer machine, Moore’s invention was supposed to typewrite words onto a strip of special paper that would be cut and pasted into pages of text that would then be reproduced by a lithographic process.[18] Moore was unhappy with the machine and blamed its defects on its construction. After examining the machine, Mergenthaler determined that the problem lay not in the workmanship, but rather in Moore’s design.[19] In accordance with Moore’s wishes, Mergenthaler improved upon his typewriting machine, which eventually worked but never functioned satisfactorily.

Moore’s invention had been funded by a group of sponsors and financiers that included James O. Clephane, his brother Lewis Clephane, Maurice Pechin, and J.H. Crossman, all of Washington, DC.[20] James Clephane was a Washington stenographer with a long-time interest in writing and printing machines. He was also a charismatic and passionate individual, and he and Mergenthaler got along exceeding well. In 1877, the year after Moore first brought his machine to Hahl’s workshop, Clephane, Lewis Clephane, Moore, Pechin, and others founded the National Machine Printing Company for the purpose of financing other new ventures in the printing industry. Lewis Clephane was named president of the company, whose initial capital amounted to $28,000 in 1877 (or $602,000 in 2010).[21]

After carefully examining Moore’s machine, James Clephane concluded that the lithographic process presented considerable difficulties, and he proposed a stereotypic process instead. In 1877, he commissioned Mergenthaler to build a matrix embossing machine based on stereotypic principles. The idea was to create a stereotyping machine that would, as Basil Kahan explains, “cast lines of type from a mould made by impressing one character at a time onto a papier-mâché strip.”[22] Molten metal would then be poured over the assembled molds, or matrices, in order to produce a stereotype plate for printing.[23] Apparently, Mergenthaler was not terribly optimistic about Clephane’s idea and voiced his objections. Clephane, the indefatigable enthusiast, is said to have replied: “Give me an impression machine and I will attend to the rest.”[24] The stereotypic matrix embossing machine was completed in 1878, but, like Moore’s transfer machine, it never functioned well.

From 1876 until 1879, Mergenthaler worked as Hahl’s foreman and developed models for printing machines based on Clephane’s ideas.[25] On January 1, 1883, Mergenthaler ended his partnership with Hahl and opened his own workshop at 12 Black Lane in Baltimore. After becoming independent, Mergenthaler approached Clephane about a design for a new stereotyping machine that would imprint a matrix in a complete line, with each line being justified as a unit. Line-by-line imprinting, he thought, would allow him to avoid the bulges that invariably arose as one letter after another was impressed on the papier-mâché strips.

The social network that Mergenthaler had built up over the years was of great help in financing his work on this machine. Through James Clephane, Mergenthaler had met Lemon G. Hine, a well-to-do Washington lawyer who had already acquired the majority shares of the National Machine Printing Company. At the beginning of 1883, Hine commissioned Mergenthaler to build a stereotyping machine that produced impressions on papier-mâché on a line-by-line basis. Later that year, Hine set up the National Typographic Company of West Virginia; the board included Hine himself (as president), as well as Frank Hume, Kurtz Johnson, James Clephane, and Abner Greenleaf. It was capitalized at $1 million ($22.5 million in 2010), divided into 40,000 shares.[26] In the event of the project’s success, Hine was prepared to give Mergenthaler “some fair share in the invention.”[27]

The National Typographic Company established a workshop at 201 Camden Street, in Baltimore, and Mergenthaler was put in charge of it.[28] He then got to work. By the end of 1883, Mergenthaler had designed and built his first small trial machine. It had twelve letters and was known as his first band machine. Although the machine was warmly received by both experts and investors, it had numerous shortcomings. Particularly problematic was the slow drying of the matrices. This slowed the printing process, which was far from ideal, given that speed and efficiency were imperative in the newly dawned “information age.” Mergenthaler concluded that papier-mâché was unsuitable for his work and that the matrices needed to be cast from molten metal.[29]

In 1884, while travelling by train to Washington, where he was scheduled to meet with Clephane and Hine, Mergenthaler apparently had a breakthrough moment. According to George Iles, “On board the train there flashed across his mind: Why have separate matrices at all; why not stamp matrices into type bars and cast metal into them in one and the same machine?”[30] At that moment, it became clear that the solution was not a further division of labor, but rather the merging of the various steps, namely typesetting and casting.[31] Mergenthaler decided to turn thin brass type bars into matrices by embossing the brass through the stroke of a key. These matrices, freshly embossed with lines of type, would then serve as the casting mold, and the setting and casting processes would thus be combined into one step. This was the concept behind Mergenthaler’s first direct casting band machine, which produced four lines per minute and marked a new chapter in the history of typography. On July 26, 1884, Mergenthaler demonstrated his first direct casting band machine (also known as his second band machine) in his workshop in front of a small circle of experts, among them Stilson Hutchins, the owner of The Washington Post.

Again, Mergenthaler’s innovation enjoyed a positive reception, but still exhibited many shortcomings, including its high price and imperfect mode of operation, both of which promised to hinder the machine’s widespread introduction. Mergenthaler’s financiers estimated that, in order for the machine to become commercially successful, it needed to cost less than $400 ($9,170 in 2010). In terms of design, it was extremely problematic that corrections could not be made in fully cast lines; and in terms of efficiency, it was far from ideal that the machine’s operator had to continuously set up a line and immediately correct all typographical errors as well. These concerns led Mergenthaler to use individual matrices – metal pieces in which a single character was embossed. With these individual metal character molds, the typesetter could see the line he or she had composed and make corrections before it was cast. After this, the matrices would be returned to the magazine.

One initial challenge that Mergenthaler faced was manufacturing high-precision matrices at a moderate price. But he faced challenges of an entirely different sort as well: at the time, Mergenthaler was still under contract with the National Typographic Company. In a new contractual agreement signed on November 13, 1884, the two parties agreed that the inventor would have full control over his development work, would receive an annual salary of $3,000 ($68,800 in 2010), and would get ten percent of the earnings from every manufactured machine that generated a profit. According to another section of this contract, all of Mergenthaler’s inventions, previous and future, would become the property of the company in the event that Mergenthaler was to quit.[32]

Hutchins, who had been on hand for the machine’s unveiling, was one of the first people to realize its potential value in newspaper production. In 1885, Hutchins organized an event at the Chamberlain Hotel to promote the machine. Mergenthaler was honored with a feast and made his official public debut as an “inventor.” The guests included then U.S. President Chester Arthur and numerous printing press representatives from all over the world. Hutchins, who soon became one of Mergenthaler’s best-known promoters, started marketing the machine to well-to-do American newspaper publishers with the goal of founding a syndicate that would ultimately take over the management of the National Typographic Company. The hoped-for syndicate was founded on March 14, 1885, by (among others) Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune, W. N. Haldeman of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Victor Lawson and Melville Stone of the Chicago News, and, last but not least, Hutchins himself. The new management team took over leadership of the National Typographic Company in the spring of 1885 with a total capital of approximately $300,000 ($7,020,000 in 2010). It was said that this was the largest sum ever invested in an American invention that had yet to turn a profit. The syndicate bought the total amount of holdings of $7,000 ($164,000 in 2010) at $32 per share along with related assets amounting to $14,024 from the National Typographic Company.[33]

After the takeover of the enterprise, Mergenthaler was instructed to move his workshop from Baltimore to Chicago, where Melville Stone, who was serving as the syndicate’s chairperson, had his publishing house and intended to oversee the work. Mergenthaler, then thirty years old, is said to have politely refused this order. In the meantime, he continued working hard in Baltimore to complete the prototype for his improved machine. As part of these efforts, he endeavored to develop the machine’s matrices himself – embossing the cast molds required steel stamps that had been made by hand in type foundries for centuries. Mergenthaler was about to create an extra machine because it was very expensive to have these stamps cut by hand. At this juncture, he sought help from Linn Body Bentron, a type founder from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who made a stamping machine for Mergenthaler’s business.

Again, having overcome technical obstacles, Mergenthaler ran into barriers of another sort. This time, the problem came from newspaper publishers who were counting on the implementation and distribution of the machine in its present form and who did not want to incur further production costs for development work. But despite these setbacks, in the summer of 1885, Mergenthaler’s “Single-matrix” machine, later named the “Blower” (because it operated with compressed air), was tested and shown to have overcome the deficiencies of the previous models (Letters Patent No. 317,828, dated May 12, 1885).[34]

Thereafter, the syndicate decided to begin manufacturing this new machine in large quantities. Because the National Typographic Company did not have the means to finance this commitment, the Mergenthaler Printing Company,[35] a new firm with a capital amounting to $1,000,000 ($23,400,000 in 2010) was founded in 1885. Whitelaw Reid, publisher of the New York Tribune, became the company’s president and general manager. Stock options were demanded by stakeholders in the old National Typographic Company and in the syndicate, which wanted to hold the majority interest in the new firm. Hine thereupon demanded twenty-five percent of the capital of the investors in the Washington Group, and Mergenthaler, who had put his entire personal fortune into his factory, accepted a loan from Reid so that he could buy his shares. The terms of this advance were rather harsh: Reid held the shares as collateral with irrevocable power of attorney and charged six percent interest. When the firm began requiring a twenty percent enrollment by its members, Mergenthaler promptly ran up debts of $5,000.[36]

In 1885, Mergenthaler was apparently told that there were sufficient funds for the serial production of his Blower machines, and Whitelaw Reid seems to have instructed him to start production as soon as possible without any “unnecessary regard for the financial situation”[37] The first series of 100 Blowers was planned for members of the syndicate, with the New York Tribune slated to receive twenty-five machines alone.[38] In 1886, the Tribune became the first newspaper to use Mergenthaler’s machine in its actual day-to-day operations. Tribune owner Whitelaw Reid is said to have named the machine “Linotype” because it put out one line of characters – a “line o’ type.”

The syndicate granted Mergenthaler a contract for 100 more machines. Although production was increasing, syndicate members granted themselves special rights and continued to hold a monopoly on the Blower: the typesetting machine was only available to other printing presses (i.e., non-members of the syndicate) for rent for a nonrefundable deposit of $1,000 plus a licensing fee of 10 cents per printout. By 1887, the New York Tribune had thirty Linotypes, the Washington Post had fifteen, Rand of Rand in Chicago had twenty, and the Courier Journal in Louisville had eighteen.[39] That same year, the Tribune published The Tribune Book of Open Air Sports, which was the first book composed entirely with Mergenthaler’s Linotype. A note on the verso of the title page read: “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.” By 1888, the Blower was saving the New York Tribune an estimated $80,000 per year ($1,890,000 in 2010).[40]

The contract for the additional 100 machines gave Mergenthaler enough money and security to reorganize his workshop. Within a few months, his 201 Camden Street workshop in Baltimore was expanded, and his staff grew from 40 to 160. Among other priorities, Mergenthaler always made sure that his newly recruited employees received optimal training and mentoring. Additionally, he also opened a new building on Preston Street, where more than 100 people worked on machine assembly and matrix production. For the larger components of the machine, Mergenthaler contracted with outside workshops in Baltimore and New York.[41]

The production of Mergenthaler’s machines was slowed by various problems, one of which was the untimely delivery of component parts. Unfortunately, the inventor either had to wait a long time for delivered parts or make them himself, an equally time-consuming route. Likewise, the machine assembly process was slow and problematic, and to remedy this, Mergenthaler devised various methods to reduce the high costs associated with the existing division of labor. By introducing a bonus system that rewarded efficiency, Mergenthaler was able to incentivize his employees and produce machines more cheaply without sacrificing quality: for every flawlessly assembled machine, Mergenthaler paid the assembler a $10 bonus.[42] By February 1888, fifty machines had been delivered to syndicate members and more than 100 additional machines were expected in the following months.

Nonetheless, Mergenthaler was still under significant time pressure. As syndicate members began interfering with the management of his development work, the disputes between Mergenthaler and various stakeholders became intolerable. In his biography, the inventor claims that Whitelaw Reid, who apparently complained constantly about the quality of Mergenthaler’s matrices, actually wanted to establish his own workshop for matrix production in 1887 in order to compete with the Mergenthaler Printing Company – of which he was president. The person chosen to lead this rival workshop was Mergenthaler’s former colleague Richard Berger. The confrontation between Reid and Mergenthaler peaked when Mergenthaler, who had initially been contracted to manufacture his machines as quickly as possible, was told to produce them more cheaply. He was instructed to reduce his payroll and to fire the “least useful men.”[43]

Amidst all of this, Mergenthaler, with renewed financial support from James Clephane and the Washington Group, still managed to develop the “Square Base” model Linotype machine (Letters Patent No. 378,798, dated February 28, 1888). On March 15, 1888, shortly after receiving a patent for this new machine, Mergenthaler announced his resignation from the Mergenthaler Printing Company. According to his own account, he had taken the position only because it was initially agreed that he was to be solely responsible for development work. Later on, however, he was apparently too frequently hassled and too strongly controlled by the executive board of the company. He would never again work for a fixed income, though he was prepared to accept contract work. [44] Mergenthaler then sold a large portion of his stocks and shares in both enterprises (National Printing Company and Mergenthaler Printing Company) and spent $7,000 ($166,000 in 2010) on a workshop for his new Ottmar Mergenthaler Co., which was located on the corner of Clagett and Allen Streets in Baltimore’s Locust Point neighborhood.[45]

In the summer of 1888, Mergenthaler experienced one of the most traumatic events of his life when his second son, Julius, died at the age of four. In the fall of that same year, Mergenthaler suffered a near deadly bout of pleurisy.

The following year brought some happier developments: in March 1889, the Blower-model Lintoype became known to the general public after Scientific American published an article about it. The article appeared on the cover of the March 9, 1889, issue and included a large illustration of a Linotype machine in use at the New York Tribune. No doubt, contemporary readers would have been astounded by the sheer mass of the machine, which was approximately the size of a grand piano. The article presented the Linotype as the “latest, and in many respects the most remarkable, of the numerous machines which inventors and mechanics have from time to time devised in their long-continued efforts to find some practical means by which to supersede or cut short the tedious work of typesetting.”[46] After describing the technical workings of the machine in great detail, the article noted that the New York Tribune ordinarily ran thirty Linotype machines for eight hours a day, which was enough to get out a ten-page edition of the daily. According to the article, this output would have required the services of about ninety men in “the old way of working.”[47]

While the Linotype machine was finally becoming known among the general public in America, it was also starting to make inroads into international markets thanks to a promotional campaign led by Stilson Hutchins. According to an 1889 notice in the Washington Post, the patent rights were sold that same year in Great Britain and Ireland for $2.5 million ($61.1 million in 2010).[48] Although the report did not disclose the name of the “British company,” the rights had been purchased by the British Linotype Company Ltd., which was headquartered in Manchester.

By all accounts, 1890 was a good year for Mergenthaler and his business. In January 1890, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia awarded him the gold Elliot Cresson Medal “for the rapidity and excellence of the work of the linotype machine, and for the economy resulting in the class of work to which it is applicable.”[49] Shortly thereafter, Mergenthaler was once again under contract with the Mergenthaler Company, this time to build 100 machines, each for $1,200.[50] It was agreed that for every typesetting machine sold Mergenthaler would receive $50.[51] The new serial production took place in both Mergenthaler’s factory in Baltimore (Ottmar Mergenthaler Co.) and in the Brooklyn factory (Mergenthaler Printing Company), leading to an internal competition between the two machine halls with regard to production cost, output, quality, and delivery. At the same time, the Brooklyn factory was also struggling to complete the first twelve “Square Base” Linotypes. The new and improved machine, which had been displayed in the Judge Building in New York City in early 1890, was deemed an unqualified success. In October 1890, the first six machines were delivered to the Brooklyn Standard Union, the main organ of the Typographical Union, the largest printers’ labor union in America.[52] A newspaper report published that same month called the Square Base model “much superior to that in the Tribune.”[53]

Despite the year’s various successes, Mergenthaler was disinclined to rest on his laurels, and instead worked to improve and refine the latest version of his Linotype machine. In September 1890, Mergenthaler patented his crowning technical achievement, the new “Simplex” Linotype (U.S. Letters Patent No. 436,532, dated September 16, 1890), the model on which all of his subsequent refinements were based. Of this new machine, historian Richard E. Huss said the following, ““[T]he Simplex Linotype was the machine Mergenthaler had been working on for fourteen years, and the machine with which he was most pleased [ . . . ]. The whole world hailed his invention, which Thomas Edison called the Eighth Wonder of the World.”[54]

The increased demand for Linotypes led to the merger of the Mergenthaler Printing Company and the National Typographic Company in 1891. The merger, in turn, led to the formation of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, which was headquartered in Brooklyn and led by patent lawyer and attorney-at-law P. T. Dodge. For the first time, the firm included the word “Linotype” in its name. Because the relatively high cost of the machine –$3,000 ($74,200 in 2010) – was still prohibitive for many presses and small newspapers, the firm focused on renting machines, which meant that the enterprise was officially a leasing company. By 1894, it was possible for the company to start issuing dividends payments. According to a report in the financial pages of the Los Angeles Times, during the company’s 1895-96 fiscal year, the yearly rental fee for the new “Simplex” machine was $500 with the possibility of purchase for $2,500 at the end of the contract period.[55] That year, the company leased about 1,600 machines.[56]

The successful development of the Linotype had cleared the path for the construction of other mechanized type- and line-setting machines, such as the “Typograph” (1888) by W. S. Schucker and the “Monotype” (1891) by Tolbert Lanston.[57] The originality of Mergenthaler’s typesetting machine was called into question in 1879, when Schucker was awarded a patent similar to the one granted for the Linotype. He then assigned it to the Rogers Typograph Company. The lengthy dispute over the patent and copyrights finally ended in mid-1895, when Mergenthaler bought out the Rogers Typograph Company for $416,000 ($11.1 million in 2010); the sale included not only the Rogers’ plant and equipment, but also its various patents.[58] With this, Mergenthaler prevented the manufacture and sale of the Typograph on the U.S. market. The purchase also allowed the company to increase its capitalization, and in December 1895, it was reported that the Mergenthaler Linotype Company had increased its capital stock from $5,000,000 to $10,000,000.[59] According to the yearly stakeholder report, the net profit of the company amounted to $1,958,971.34 in 1895 ($52.5 million in 2019).[60] Its output for that year, according to the report, was 1,036 Linotype machines, which meant that about 2,700 of them were in use in the U.S.[61]

At this stage in his career, even Mergenthaler himself was finally satisfied with his achievements. In 1893, he gained additional renown when the Linotype was exhibited and celebrated at the World’s Fair in Chicago. In 1894, the Linotype made its operational debut on the European continent after the publishing group De Neederlandsche Financier acquired one for their Amsterdam office after seeing it at the World’s Fair in Brussels.

While the Linotype was driving the spread and advancement of knowledge, Mergenthaler fell ill with tuberculosis. In 1895, health problems forced him to move to the American Southwest, where he settled in Deming, New Mexico. There, in 1897, he began writing his biography, part of which chronicled the development of the Linotype. In 1898, Mergenthaler published his manuscript at his own expense. The published text included the sentence, “Promises made by the company are made only to be broken”[62] – a clear expression of his belief that he had been treated unfairly by the company. In his “Last Letter of Protest,”[63] Mergenthaler complained that he only received a small fraction of the revenues that his company earned as a result of his painstaking work and achievements. Apparently, the thing that injured him most, however, was P.T. Dodge’s plan to change the company’s name to Linotype Company, since he felt that the name Mergenthaler was too long and too often subject to misspelling. Mergenthaler felt that his rightful honor as the inventor of the Linotype was being “stolen” from him. It was only after company shareholder D. O. Mills intervened that Dodge’s name-change plan was thwarted.

Mergenthaler died on October 28, 1899, at his home in Baltimore. With the help of new technological innovations, the Mergenthaler Linotype Company continued to grow and solidified its lead over the competition in the years following Mergenthaler’s death. By the end of 1910, the company had built 16,000 machines, and in that year, its net earnings were $2,763,869 ($65.4 million in 2010).[64] By 1913, the company had 1,656 employees, making it one of Brooklyn’s five largest employers. The Mergenthaler Company remained in existence for almost 100 years before being taken over by the German firm Linotype AG, Eschborn, in 1987.

Social Status, Family, and Personality

Mergenthaler’s business and family personae can be reconstructed through contemporary sources. In George Iles’ 1912 account, Mergenthaler emerges as a beloved supervisor whose goodwill made for a positive work environment and went a long way in minimizing the ongoing annoyances of development work. Former employee William R. Brack described Mergenthaler’s kindness as follows:

His kindheartedness even extended to animals, particularly horses, and he would not stand for their mistreatment. One evening I was leaving the Linotype workshop for home and rode with Mergenthaler in the same carriage.The driver lost his patience with the horses at an unpaved portion of the road and began whipping the animals. Mergenthaler jumped to their aid and reprimanded the carriage driver in such a way that he surely had not heard before. This had the desired effect. This man never mistreated his horses again.[65]

Charles R. Wagner, a machinist who helped Mergenthaler with the construction of the first Linotype, said this of the inventor: “Never was an employer more loved than Mergenthaler. When there were urgent orders to fill that led to overtime, he made sure, went through the workshop and asked everyone if we had eaten lunch. If we said no, he immediately ordered lunch in the neighboring restaurant.”[66]

Mergenthaler’s success in America led to personal prosperity. His inventions afforded him an elevated lifestyle in Baltimore and allowed him to purchase a large house in a desirable neighborhood at 159 West Lanvale Street. There, he enjoyed the recognition and esteem of his fellow citizens, particularly those active in the German clubs and societies to which he also belonged. They included the German Society of Maryland and the Liederkranz singing club, of which he eventually became president. In Baltimore, Mergenthaler maintained good relations with local printers, particularly Charles W. Scheidereith and Simon Dalsheimer of the Friedenwald Company. Mergenthaler was also a member of the Zion Church of Baltimore, and he loved singing, drinking with friends, smoking, and making jokes.[67] He is said to have been a loyal person who recognized and appreciated his friends’ and colleagues’ willingness to help, and he was quick to exhibit his gratitude toward others, particularly James Clephane, on whom he conferred the title “Father of the Linotype.”[68]

Mergenthaler’s extreme dedication to his work did not prevent him from spending time with his family. Together, he and his wife Emma had five children, four boys and a girl: Fritz Lilian (1883-1910), Julius Ottmar (1884-88), Eugene George (1885-1919), Hermann Charles (1887-1972), and Pauline Rosalie (1894-1986). According to Mergenthaler, Pauline, both the youngest and the only girl, “provided the missing piece of a well-composed family.” Aside from Julius, who died at age of four, all of his sons received a good university education. His oldest son Fritz studied at Cornell University and became a mechanical engineer. Unfortunately, on August 9, 1910, he and his wife Doris Feldner, along with both of her parents, died after their car was hit by the Cape May express train.[69] Mergenthaler’s third son Eugene studied electrical engineering at Johns Hopkins University and Cornell and opened his own company in Baltimore. He never married and died of the Spanish flu in 1919. Mergenthaler’s fourth son Hermann studied at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology [Technische Hochschule in Karlsruhe] and lived in the United States until his death in 1972. Pauline married Rody Perkins in 1917 and had a daughter, Nancy, the following year.[70] Upon his death, Eugene Mergenthaler bequeathed part of his fortune to Johns Hopkins University to finance a memorial to his father; thirty-three years later, his bequest aided in the construction of Mergenthaler Hall, a four-story laboratory at Johns Hopkins University that was completed in 1943.

Ottmar Mergenthaler also remained devoted to his family back in Germany and helped support his brothers’ vocational training. Over the years, he maintained a lively correspondence with his brother Adolf, who benefitted from his generosity. Later on, after Mergenthaler fell ill, he paid for his half-brother Friedrich to come to America to oversee the management of the Locust Point factory. Unfortunately, the relationship between Friedrich and Ottmar eventually deteriorated on account of financial disagreements.[71]

Mergenthaler’s family was very close knit, and he made sure that they all spent ample time with one another. He had a “racehorse and a pretty double team,” and the family is said to have taken rides virtually every evening.[72] His wife’s letters suggest that Mergenthaler had a happy marriage.[73] His daughter Pauline, who was only five years old when Mergenthaler died, described him as respectable, noble, heroic, and as an extreme workaholic. Her brother Hermann, who was seven years her senior, described their father as a man with a distinctive sense of humor, a man who drank and smoked with friends gladly and often. Reportedly, Mergenthaler always took his family along on business trips. Their last shared family vacation took place in 1892, when Mergenthaler traveled to Germany to visit his father, who supposedly used the occasion to voice his concern for the “typographers who were becoming unemployed” on account of his son’s invention. In expressing those sentiments, Johann Mergenthaler was merely echoing some of the criticisms leveled against the Linotype in the German press. In 1885, for instance, Journal für die Buchdruckerwelt[Journal of the Letterpress World] called Mergenthaler’s invention the “brilliant typesetting machine sham of America,” because it threatened two professions at once: typesetters and type founders.[74] In 1893, a year after Mergenthaler’s trip home, his father died, and Mergenthaler voiced his fears of a dwindling “feeling of togetherness” within the family.[75]

Ottmar Mergenthaler the inventor was a cautious optimist; as a person, he was opinionated and stubborn, and wholly lacking in diplomacy and delegation skills. His persistence in improving the Linotype not only brought him into conflict with publishers, but also harmed him physically. Quite simply, the intense decade of development work on the Linotype took a serious and lasting toll on Mergenthaler’s health. He overextended himself and reached his physical limits at the peak of his career. After a series of constant moves, which took him from the Blue Mountains in Maryland to Saranac Lake in New York and from there to Arizona – all in an attempt to cure his failing health – Mergenthaler finally settled in Deming, New Mexico, where he began writing his memoirs. After a sudden fire nearly destroyed the entire house and all of his family and private papers, he returned to Baltimore “sicker than ever” on April 14, 1897.

On October 28, 1899, Mergenthaler died at home in the presence of his children.[76] One month later, his last will and testament were made public, revealing the extent of his philanthropic character.[77] Mergenthaler left Baltimore’s German Orphan Asylum [Allgemeines Deutsches Waisenhaus] $2,000 ($54,200 in 2010). Mergenthaler’s wife received a third of his fortune, which was estimated at just shy of $500,000 ($13.6 million in 2010), including shares and bonds. The rest of his fortune was left to his children, who were able to collect their inheritance at the age of twenty-one. According to his contract with his company, his family was to receive $50 for every Linotype machine produced.[78]

Unfortunately, Mergenthaler never got to experience the complete triumph of his invention during his lifetime. Still, he did benefit from a good bit of acclaim. In 1890, as mentioned above, his work was recognized by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia; and in 1891, the city of Philadelphia awarded him the John Scott Medal in recognition of the Linotype’s role in increasing efficiency in the printing industry. Additional accolades followed after his death. In 1919, on what would have been Mergenthaler’s sixty-third birthday, his wife and daughter Pauline presented a bronze bust of him to the Shephard School in Chicago. The bust, which was modeled on an 1894 picture of Mergenthaler, had been made by one of his close friends, the German-born Baltimore sculptor Hans Schuler. The bust honored Mergenthaler’s contributions to the “advancement of education.”[79] In 1923, the Ottmar Mergenthaler School of Printing opened in Baltimore; its mission was to train young typesetters in new printing methods.

In 1920, the American Newspaper Publishers Association nominated Mergenthaler to the National Inventors Hall of Fame.[80] (It took more than sixty-two years for him to be inducted, but it did happen in the end.) Mergenthaler was also honored posthumously in both his German hometown of Hachtel and his adopted city of Baltimore. In 1924, on the 25th anniversary of Mergenthaler’s death, Hachtel opened a museum in honor of their native son and also mounted a plaque on his birth house. These events were complemented by the publication of a commemorative book, Ottmar Mergenthalers’ Jugendjahre [Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Youth].[81] In Baltimore, the city’s Zion Church paid tribute Mergenthaler by inserting an image of the Blower into its stained glass industry window.[82] Perhaps the greatest tribute to him, however, was the founding of Mergenthaler Vocational Technical High School, also known as “Mervo,” at 3500 Hillen Road in Baltimore. The school was opened in 1953 and renovated in 1998.


Generally speaking, Ottmar Mergenthaler’s ethnic background received far less attention than the “watchmaker competencies” he brought with him to the United States.[83] His “Germanness” was most commonly evoked in historical accounts that sought to present him as a nineteenth-century heir to his famous compatriot Johannes Gutenberg, who devised a revolutionary system of type casting and typesetting that mechanized the print process in the fifteenth century. The association is indeed justifiable, since Mergenthaler introduced a new era in printing by streamlining and improving upon Gutenberg’s principle.

Ottmar Mergenthaler arrived in the United States in 1872 with $30 in his pocket and an extremely valuable store of technical know-how that he had developed as a watchmaker’s apprentice. Thirteen years later, he received a patent for his “Single-matrix” typesetting machine (i.e., the Blower), an invention that quickly changed the American printing industry, and, by extension, American culture as a whole. Eventually, the Linotype’s influence radiated beyond the U.S., leading to the Americanization of the British and international printing industries.

Depending on the font size, Mergenthaler’s Linotype could set and cast roughly 5,000 to 7,000 characters per hour, which meant that newspapers could be printed faster than ever before. As importantly, however, the Linotype also meant that newspapers could be longer: before the introduction of Mergenthaler’s machine, newspapers only averaged about eight pages. After the Linotype was put into use, newspapers were able to produce more content, and they could also do so in mass. Thus, the Linotype not only accelerated the spread of news but increased the volume of it as well – two changes with a profound effect on American culture. The commercial success of the Linotype changed the nature of news reporting, expanded the reach of American newspapers, and led to the development of mass communication, which, in turn, became a major component of the growth of mass consumerism. It could also be said that Mergenthaler’s invention led to the democratization of the press by making printed materials more affordable and accessible. Furthermore, the Linotype created the preconditions for mass-produced books, i.e., the paperbacks of today, thus expanding educational opportunities for millions.

Mergenthaler is often presented “as the last example of an inspired mechanic who combined passion with highly developed analytical skills.”[84] His particular aim, as an inventor, may have been to solve highly specific problems and thereby advance print technology. In the end, however, he achieved much more – by advancing printing, he advanced culture and society as a whole. By now, the Linotype has been replaced by phototypesetting, and Mergenthaler’s machine occupies museums rather than newspaper headquarters. But while the technology of the Linotype has been superseded, the changes it prompted still continue to shape all aspects of life, society, and culture today.


[1] Basil Kahan,Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine. A Biographical Appreciation of the Inventor on His Centennial (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2000), 6.

[2] Fritz Schröder, Ottmar Mergenthaler, Leben und Schaffen eines großen deutschen Erfinders (Berlin: Mergenthaler Setzmaschinen-Fabrik GmbH, 1941), 11. Schröder’s work is largely based on Wilhelm Bauder’s Die Mergenthaler (Leipzig: Zentralstelle für Deutsche und Familiengeschichte, 1939).

[3] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 6.

[4] Willi Mengel, Die Linotype erreichte die Welt: Dem Andenken an Ottmar Mergenthaler (Berlin: Mergenthaler Setzmaschinen-Fabrik GmbH, 1955), 55; Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler:The Man and his Machine, 6.

[5] Schröder, Ottmar Mergenthaler, 14-15.

[6] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 6.

[7] Ibid., 9.

[8] In 1898, Mergenthaler published a version of his “biography,” which he had dictated to Otto Schoenrich. It was called The Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler and the History of Linotype, its Invention and Development (Baltimore, MD: 1898). It is the most significant primary source document about Mergenthaler, his inventions, and his relationships with newspaper publishers and investors in his company. See Stephen O. Saxe, “The ‘Biography’ of Ottmar Mergenthaler,” in Carl Schlesinger, The Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler. Inventor of the Linotype (New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 1989), xvi-xvii.

[9] Carl Schlesinger, The Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler, 3.

[10] Schröder, Ottmar Mergenthaler, 22-23. The passage was translated from the original German.

[11] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 10.

[12] Schröder, Ottmar Mergenthaler, 23.

[13] Peter Marschalck, Deutsche Überseewanderung im 19. Jahrhundert: ein Beitrag zur soziologischen Theorie der Bevölkerung (Stuttgart: Klett, 1973), 35; Alexander und Eugene Kulischer, Kriegs- und Wanderzüge: Weltgeschichte als Völkerbewegung (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1932), 155.

[14] Mengel, Die Linotype erreichte die Welt, 59-60.

[15] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 11; Annie E.S. Beard, Our Foreign-Born Citizens. What They Have Done for America. New York, NY: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1922, 169.

[16] George Iles, Leading American Inventors: With Fifteen Portraits and Many Illustrations, edited by W. P. Trent (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1912), 405.

[17] Dieter Cunz, The Maryland Germans: A History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1948), 320-21.

[18] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 4.

[19] Ibid., 13-14.

[20] Ibid., 12.

[21] Ibid., 16. All current values (in 2010 USD) are based on Samuel H. Williamson, “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount, 1774 to present,”MeasuringWorth, 2011, using the Consumer Price Index.

[22] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, p. 16.

[23]Ottmar Mergenthaler Facts,” (accessed May 1, 2013).

[24] Iles, Leading American Inventors, 408.

[25] Kahan, p. 17.

[26] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 19.

[27] Ibid., 18.

[28] Iles, Leading American Inventors, 413.

[29] Ibid., 411.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Silvia Werfel, Der maschinelle Bleisatz, Aspekte zur Technik-, Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte, Jahrestagung des Internationalen Arbeitskreises Druck- und Mediengeschichte in Leipzig, 15. bis 17. November 2002 (Bischofszell: Ottmar Verlag, 2008), 7.

[32] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 22.

[33] Ibid., 30.

[34] “The Linotype: A Classic Invention,” The Science News-Letter, vol. 22, no. 608 (Society for Science & the Public: 1932), 358-59.

[35] A large collection of company letters, patents, and legal papers (1881-1954) can be found in the University of Delaware Library, Special Collections Department, (accessed April 10, 2011).

[36] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 35.

[37] Ibid., 35.

[39] Schröder, Ottmar Mergenthaler, 53.

[40] Ibid; Iles,Leading American Inventors, 423.

[41] Schröder, Ottmar Mergenthaler, 46.

[42] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 49.

[43] Ibid., 54.

[44] Ibid.

[45] Ibid., 61.

[46] “A Machine to Supersede Typesetting,” Scientific American, vol. LX, no. 10, March 9, 1889, 143.

[47] Ibid., 150.

[48] “Mr. Hutchins’ Report: He Tells the Typographic Machine Stockholders about his Work Abroad,” The Washington Post, August 27, 1889, 2.

[49] “Medal for Inventor Mergenthaler,” The Washington Post, January 21, 1890, 1.

[50] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 81.

[51] Ibid., 76.

[52] Ibid., 81.

[53] Chas. T. Murray, “A Thriving Newsman,” Washington Post, October 12, 1890, 10.

[54] Richard E. Huss, The Development of Printers’ Mechanical Typesetting Methods, 1822-1925, (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1973), 108.

[55] “General Business Topics,” Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1896, 10.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Otto Höhne, Geschichte der Setzmaschinen (Leipzig: Verlag des Bildungsverbandes der Dt. Buchdrucker, 1925), 143-64. There were about 3,500 Monotype Machines in use in the United States in 1911, but roughly five times as many Linotypes. See Wolfgang König, “Netzwerk, Stahl und Strom: 1840 bis 1914,” in Propyläen Technikgeschichte, vol. 4 (Berlin: Propyläen Verlag, 1990), 526.

[58] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 100.

[59] “General Business Topics,” Los Angeles Times, December 20, 1895, 12.

[60] “Phenomenally Prosperous,” The Washington Post, October 17, 1895, 1.

[61] Ibid.

[62] “Noted Inventor Dead,” The Washington Post, October 29, 1889, 5.

[63] Ibid.

[64] “Mergenthaler Linotype’s Year,” Wall Street Journal, October 22, 1910, 7.

[65] Iles, Leading American Inventors, 415.

[66] Ibid.

[67] Höhne, Geschichte der Setzmaschinen, 99.

[68] Ibid.

[69] “Cape May Express Kills Five in Auto,” New York Times, August 10, 1910, 1.

[70] Kahan, Ottmar Mergenthaler: The Man and his Machine, 120.

[71] Ibid., 147-49.

[72] Schröder, Ottmar Mergenthaler, 62.

[73] Ibid.

[74] Mengel, Die Linotype erreichte die Welt, 76.

[75] Ibid., 64.

[76] “Noted Inventor Dead,” The Washington Post, October 29, 1889, 5.

[77] “Caution Advised in his Will,” Chicago Daily Tribune, November 3, 1899, 8.

[78] Ibid.

[79] “Mergenthaler Bust Unveiled by Daughter,” Chicago Daily Tribune, May 12, 1917, 10.

[80] “Who's Who among Nominees for the Hall of Fame,” New York Times, May 9, 1920, 22.

[81] Ottmar Mergenthalers’ Jugendjahre. Eine Gedenkschrift zur Enthüllung der Erinnerungstafel am Geburtshaus des Erfinders der Linotype in Hachtel am 9. November 1924. Berlin: Mergenthaler Setzmaschinen-Fabrik GmbH, 1924.

[82] Zion Church of the City of Baltimore, The Industry Window, (accessed June 7, 2011).

[83] “Watchmaker’s Skill built the Linotype,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 26, 1913, 23.

[84] Gordon B. Neavill, review (untitled), in The Library Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3 (University of Chicago Press, 1990), 263-64.

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Ottmar Mergenthaler
  • Coverage 1854-1899
  • Author
  • Website Name Immigrant Entrepreneurship
  • URL
  • Access Date July 23, 2024
  • Publisher German Historical Institute
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update August 22, 2018