Ottmar Mergenthaler

Ottmar Mergenthaler (1854-1899), the German-American inventor of the Linotype, revolutionized the printing industry with his remarkable typesetting-typecasting machine.

Ottmar Mergenthaler was born in Hachtel, Germany, on May 11, 1854. He became an apprentice watchmaker in Bietigheim at the age of 14. After 4 years there, he emigrated to the United States. He found immediate employment in the Washington, D.C., shop of August Hahl, where various types of scientific instruments, including a great many models of new inventions required for the patent application, were made. Mergenthaler's talents were soon recognized, and his services became much in demand.

Shortly after Hahl relocated his business to Baltimore in 1876, Mergenthaler was asked to correct defects in a writing machine devised by Charles T. Moore and James O. Clephane. The machine was intended to produce print by typewriting words upon a strip of paper, which would then be reproduced by a lithographic process. Mergenthaler corrected the defects in the model but became convinced that it would never perform satisfactorily. At Clephane's suggestion, Mergenthaler attempted to devise a stereotyping machine which would impress characters on a paper matrix; pouring molten metal over the assembled matrices would produce a stereotype plate for printing. By 1878 the machine was built but, as Mergenthaler had anticipated, difficulties were experienced in separating metal from matrix. The search for a reliable improvement over the laborious hand-setting of type continued.

By this time Mergenthaler was obsessed with the problem, and he pursued private efforts at a solution while continuing as a general instrument maker. In 1883 he established his own shop in Baltimore and built additional machines with paper matrices. Then he hit upon the idea of using metal matrices, casting type bars directly from them, one line at a time. After a line of matrices with indented characters was assembled and justified, molten type metal was introduced, producing a line of type ready for printing. All these processes, as well as the redistribution of the matrices, were performed by the single machine.

By July 1884 Mergenthaler had constructed the first direct-casting Linotype; it was patented in August, and in December the National Typographic Company was organized to manufacture it. On July 3, 1886, a Linotype was used to compose part of that day's issue of the New York Tribune. The machine's use spread quickly throughout the United States and abroad. Although Mergenthaler withdrew from the company manufacturing the Linotype in 1888, his interest in his invention remained as strong as before. He patented at least 50 improvements to it before his death.

Mergenthaler was a friendly, personable man. He delighted in his family and in his love of music. He died in Baltimore on Oct. 28, 1899, survived by his wife and four children.

Further Reading on Ottmar Mergenthaler

The best sources for Mergenthaler's life and his invention are George Iles, Leading American Inventors (1912), and Thomas Dreier, The Power of Print—and Men (1936). The former contains a remarkably thorough, illustrated explanation of the Linotype in all its operations. See also Edward W. Byrn, The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century (1900), and Waldemar B. Kaempffert, A Popular History of American Invention (2 vols., 1924).

Additional Biography Sources

Bellas, R. C., Ottmar Mergenthaler's marvel, Baltimore: Xavier Press, 1986.

Mergenthaler, Ottmar, The biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler, inventor of the linotype. recent findings, researched and edited by Carl Schlesinger; introduction by Elizabeth Harri, New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Books, 1989.