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Senior Correspondent

My claims to be a letterpress printer become increasingly threadbare, as my annual production is reduced to a few classy envelopes and a minimalist Christmas card.  But heavy printing equipment still monopolizes a goodly part of my living space, and I remain attuned in various ways to matters typographical, which show up in unexpected places.  I would not have thought it likely that at my august age I would find myself reading for the very first time a “new” work by Mark Twain, but that is what happened when I picked up my volume of The Gilded Age and Later Novels and started on the very latest: 44, The Mysterious Stranger.

For a novel that is perplexingly incoherent, incomprehensible, and incomplete, it is a pretty engaging read.  I might call it “post-modern” had it not been completed before Modernism is supposed to have begun in 1913, and I do call it “magical realism,” which is at least two thousand years older than Gabriel García Márquez.

The time of the novel is the late fifteenth century, the setting a strange Austrian castle occupied by a printer’s shop.  The first-person narrator is a sixteen-year-old apprentice named August Feldner: a job the novelist himself once had.  The printers are engaged in the enormous task of producing a large edition of a Latin Bible for the ecclesiastical authorities.  There is in the book a strong strain of Masonic anti-Catholicism that has to be genuine Mark Twain and reminded me of both my grandfathers.

A book report on The Mysterious Stranger could make a decent blog essay, but the tangent I prefer to pursue is invited by the book’s extraordinarily rich and accurate vocabulary of letterpress printing technology. The author is all over quoins and friskets, makereadies and the “stone” that was as fundamental to printers as to alchemists.  There can have been but few writers more typographically attuned than Mark Twain—for which fact there is a very good explanation.  Long before he was Mark Twain, Sam Clemens had put in many a weary hour in the print shop.  It is furthermore true that even more memorable than the means by which one becomes rich are those through which one becomes bankrupt.

Everyone knows about Johannes Gutenberg, but how many know about Ottmar Mergenthaler?  How many fewer about James W. Paige?  Gutenberg’s double invention, which brought together finely cast movable types with a machine capable of accurately exerting considerable leveraged pressure against them, effected a true “paradigm shift” in the manner of reproducing a written text.  It is a sometimes sad truth of industrial history that if a repetitive task performed by human hand can be performed by a machine instead, the machine will win out.  Today we tend to emphasize volume: the printing press could produce an indefinitely large number of identical pages at a rate no scribe or scriptorium full of scribes could hope to match.  The early printers themselves stressed also accuracy: the printed word could carry the authority of having been corrected in proof by an expert editor or even the author himself.

It is an exaggeration, though one I permit myself, to say that Gutenburg’s printing technology of 1450 remained largely unchanged until roughly 1950.  In that same period the demand for printed materials increased astronomically.  My guess would be that in the period between 1750 and 1850 demand probably doubled.  Presses could be and were improved and speeded up by the application of mechanical power, but there remained a bottleneck: the types had to be set by hand.  Compositors (type-setters) might become amazingly agile and productive as compared with their Renaissance predecessors; but the entire printing industry knew that the next big thing had to be an automatic type-setting machine.  Certainly Samuel Clemens did.

By the middle of the nineteenth century inventors throughout the industrialized world were hard at work on the idea.  But America was the Land of Invention, and it would be two Americans who in the 1870s would independently and almost simultaneously succeed: James Paige (1842-1917), an engineer from Rochester, and the German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899).  Paige won the prize for bells and whistles, Mergenthaler for lateral thinking.  Unfortunately Mark Twain put his money, and I mean all his money, on the Paige Compositor.  That is, he invested heavily in a project that might have made him a millionaire.

Paige had come up with a huge and almost supernaturally complicated machine that set individual pieces of type as a human compositor would, only much faster.  A firm believer that hypothetical perfection should ever war against achieved adequacy, he then kept fiddling with improvements for years while his competitor went into production.  This competitor, Mergenthaler, had had one of history’s great brain waves.  His machine would not juggle thousands of small pieces of “cold” foundry type just dying to misbehave; it would be instead a small foundry itself, casting in hot metal whole solid, stable lines of text as they would appear in the columns of a newspaper or pages of a book.  For this reason he called his invention the Linotype Machine.

In his will Shakespeare famously bequeathed to his wife his “second best bed”—a legacy no doubt generously conceived and gratefully accepted.  But second best is not always good enough.  The vast printing industry of the late nineteenth century turned out to be cruelly uninterested in the second best mechanical composing machine on offer even if a great American writer had bet the farm on it.  These days, of course, only a few antiquarians like myself are interested in metal type at all—hot or cold.  No doubt there are also those who collect Betamax and buggy whips.

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