The Alden Typesetting and Distribution machine

The Alden Typesetting and Distribution Machine



Early typesetting machines like the Mitchel Composer were in commercial use by 1855. The Alden Typesetting and Distribution Machine, was “perfected” in 1857 and patented in 1868. When it worked it worked surprisingly well. The Alden operator sat at the side of a circular table and pressed a key for each of 154 characters. The 2-foot diameter wheel in the center of the table was rotated by a foot-pedal or any other available power source, and went round picking up types from slots around it where the pieces of type were stored. As the wheel passed a drop point it would drop the types one by one into a tray. The Alden’s brochure asked “Could anything be more like brain turned into brass?” The New York Times went for it in 1862 — the Civil War had led to labor shortages. The Times referred to the machine as “the invention of the Nineteenth Century” suggesting that “a new era in newspaper publishing will date from the day of introduction”. This prediction was to prove premature. The Alden Company was unable to fulfill the Times‘ order for 12 machines because of lack of capital, and the company was sold, and restructured. The reorganized company added a new angle to their marketing: they suggested that labor problems could be solved by the use of women to run their typesetting machines.

One of the machine’s early problems had been that it could set brevier (8 point) type, while newspapers used lots of agate (5½ point). In 1865 the latest version of the Alden machine was adapted to handle the smaller size. The Alden Company hired “Miss Willard, formerly of the World” to demonstrate the equipment, and on 12 September she was able to set and distribute 1,000 ems of errorless solid agate type in ten minutes. As the company claimed “The machine has never been known, so far, to strike for higher wages or stop work”, which was also true of women workers at the time. Between 1865 and 1868 the New York World hired one hundred women typesetters at below union wage rates. The claim that the machine had never been known to “stop work” was an obvious overstatement: frequent maintenance was required to keep it working smoothly.

Word spacing was a problem beyond the machine’s brazen brain, as consequently was justification. Spacing the line had to be taken care of separately, and this slowed things down to a point where traditional hand setting was as fast. Apart from spacing, the biggest problem with mechanized typesetting had always been the distribution: getting the bits of type back to the start of the process. The Aldens had designed a special form of type with grooves identifying each letter. The type could be guided back into its slot by a conveyor belt and sorted by the grooves. However in plants like the World, where printing was done from type not stereos, the traces of ink on the types caused them to become tacky and this would tend to jam the typesetting machine once they were distributed back in there. The Alden machine weighed about 1,500 lbs and had 14,626 separate parts. Getting them all to work smoothly together without breakdown ultimately defeated its developers, and it was overtaken by slicker competition.

The first machine shown on this video from The International Printing Museum, the Unitype, looks like it is basically the Alden machine with a drum adaptation on the top.