Although Ottmar Mergenthaler was born in Hatchel, Germany in 1854 and received his early training as a watchmaker in Württemberg, his creative career started and flourished after he arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1872 at the age of eighteen.
His first job could not have been more serendipitous: he started work in the scientific instrument shop of August Hahl, his step-cousin and the son of his former master in Germany. Much of the shop’s work was the making of working models of new inventions, which were then required by the U.S. Patent Office.
For the next four years, Mergenthaler’s skill and ingenuity were applied to this work, and his special talents were soon recognized.
When Hahl transferred his business to Baltimore in 1876, Mergenthaler accompanied him. One of his first projects there was to correct the defects of a machine intended to produce printing by a combination of typewriting and lithography.
The idea for the invention came from James O. Clephane of Washington. Although the machine never yielded satisfactory results, it set Mergenthaler on the path to revolutionizing the casting of type.
Clephane then suggested a machine that could punch indented characters into papier-maché, producing type through a stereotype casting. Mergenthaler, after a short examination of the idea, doubted its practicality, but on Clephane’s urging continued.
Mergenthaler completed the machine in late 1878, but in spite of much effort Mergenthaler’s misgivings proved correct. Clephane and his associates worked without Mergenthaler until they abandoned the project in 1884.
After abandoning the Clephane project, Mergenthaler proceeded on his own, and began by rethinking the entire concept. Here we can see the value of the outsider’s objective thinking; if Mergenthaler had training in printing it is quite likely he might have attempted another incremental improvement, instead of the revolutionary invention he produced.
At the time of his work, in the 1880s, there were scores of typesetting machines being invented and many were in daily use in this country and in Europe.
Mergenthaler’s concept was to produce a machine that did not merely set previously cast type, as the other machines did, but to combine the casting of type with the composition of text in a single operation.
With the backing of Clephane and L. G. Hine, a Washington lawyer, Mergenthaler produced a small experimental machine and then, in the fall of 1883, a full-sized machine. This machine continued the use of papier-mâché matrices, but soon a new idea came into Mergenthalier’s mind: “Why have a separate matrix at all; why can I not stamp matrices into my type bars and cast metal into them in the same machine?”
By July, 1884 two new machines on this principle were completed. In his own words, “Smoothly and silently the matrices slid into their places, were clamped and aligned, the pump discharged its contents, a finished Linotype, shining like silver, dropped from the machine and the matrices returned to their normal positions.”
This was the first test of the direct casting band machine of 1884. His backers formed The National Typographic Company, and work proceeded. A band machine with automatic wedges for line justification was completed in February, 1885, and was seen and complimented by President Chester Arthur.
In a speech at the time, Mergenthaler said “I am convinced, gentlemen, that unless some method of printing can be devised which requires no type at all, the method embodied in our invention will be the one used in the future; not alone because it is cheaper, but mainly because it is destined to secure superior quality.”