If you owned a print shop in the middle of the nineteenth century, especially a newspaper, your bottle-neck problem was not printing — the steam-powered rotary press had been introduced in 1843 — your problem was getting the type set to fill the pages. Up till then printing had mostly been done in small print shops: the factory system was still a relatively recent introduction, and typesetting was carried out by hand, just as it had been in Gutenberg’s day. This was the basic reason why newspapers from back then were mostly only four pages long: there just wasn’t time to get enough type set to fill more pages. To double your page count you’d have to double your establishment of compositors. Expense wasn’t the only barrier to that — entry to the craft was via apprenticeship, and apprentice numbers were controlled by the union.

Any time-and-motion man looking at hand setting would immediately identify the hand-motion back and forth to the typecase as a problem to be solved. The idea of a keyboard had been around since the 1820s, but nothing worked till about twenty years later when the Pianotype was patented. It didn’t really help productivity much as it required seven workers to run it.

Printing workers pooh-poohed the very idea of a machine that could set type. They knew exactly who it was who make the many fine aesthetic, numerical and technical decisions which were constantly being called for as type was set by hand, and it was quite obvious to all of these craftsmen that there was never going to be a machine which could do it as well as a journeyman compositor. In this they may even have been right, but as so often, the battle was won not by the perfect, but by the adequate. De-skilling a job is not just something which publishers’ production staff have found out about in the 21st century: it has been going on ever since the discovery of the division of labor.

The American Civil War brought the capacity problem to crisis levels as journeymen went off to war. In conjunction with the new-fangled typesetting machines, many of which now started in earnest to vie for the prize of general adoption by a growing industry, owners started to use women to do typesetting. Augusta Lewis was the most successful operator of the Alden Typesetting and Distribution Machine. She could make it sing like nobody else, and was hired by the Alden Company to demo the equipment. After the War, the (male) unions regained the initiative and were able to bar women from the composing room. They claimed women weren’t tough enough to keep up, although all the evidence points in the opposite direction: they tended to outpace their male counterparts. Of course women had something to prove, and may well have resisted intentionally moderating their speed as the men had learned to do by years of intelligent labor organizing.

One of our familiar reactions to technological developments is how obvious the idea behind them seems to be. But of course it wasn’t obvious at all until someone came along who was able to look at the situation without all the assumptions that were inevitably tied up with the traditional way of doing the task in question. Thus the big difficulty in the mechanization of typesetting (after the justification problem had been solved by space bars) was type distribution — i.e. the breaking down of the type after printing and returning it to its starting place ready to be used again. Automating typesetting was a relative breeze, and was accomplished several times: distribution was the hard problem. To us, with the benefit of knowing how Linotype and Monotype solved the problem — by simply ignoring it — this sounds crazy. But thus it was.

An average hand setting worker might accomplish 1200 ems an hour (roughly 8–10 words a minute) and the very fastest “swifts” might reach a rate of 2000 ems an hour. Julia Camp could set type on the Linotype at 10,080 ems per hour. But it wasn’t just speed that determined that the Linotype eventually triumphed. Just as important were the fact that it didn’t constantly break down, and almost more important, the fact that the Mergenthaler Company was able to produce the machine in volume once demand started to grow. Some machines were undoubtedly better but were tinkered to death by inventors who seemed keener to achieve perfection than to hit the marketplace, and who proved unable to gather sufficient funds together to build their machines.

One example, the Paige Compositor is the sinkhole that swallowed up most of Samuel Clemens’ profits from Huckleberry Finn. He became involved with the Paige machine in 1877 via an investment in another typesetting machine company, the Farnham Typesetter Company. The Paige had a rather sophisticated distribution system which inspired Clemens to exclaim “We only need one more thing, a phonograph on the distributor to yell, ‘Where in Hell is the printer’s devil, I want more type.'” It also solved the word space/justification problem mechanically, counting and measuring as it went along, and inserting the appropriate space bar as it delivered the types. In the end the Paige lost out to The Mergenthaler Company because its tinkering inventor fell to quarreling with his backers and the machine was fatally delayed, allowing the Linotype to establish itself as the machine of choice.

The proxime accessit prize goes to the Rogers Typograph, which would produce a line of type using a methodology fundamentally similar to the Linotype machine but with a rather Heath-Robinson-looking gravity method of returning the matrices to their starting point. The video below shows one. However the machine fell afoul of The Mergenthaler Company’s patent for the very idea of a line of type cast in one operation.  Rogers sold the rights to a German company and the German Typograph became a fairly successful competitor to the Linotype in Europe and around the world. After much patent toing-and-froing the Rogers Typograph Company was eventually bought out by The Mergenthaler Company for about half a million dollars. John Raphael Rogers (1856-1934) eventually became chief technical officer of the Mergenthaler Company.

This short video from The International Printing Museum in Carson, CA shows three of the earlier typesetting machines as well as the eventual winner, the Linotype. It also shows a platen press from “The Queen Mary”.