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The Machine that Bankrupted Mark Twain

The Machine that Bankrupted Mark Twain

2023-03-31 06:25:19

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, is among the most vital and celebrated American writers and wits in historical past. His eager observations and biting satires of Nineteenth Century America stay beloved classics to today, whereas his pithy quips will possible proceed to infest our social media feeds for many years extra to come back. But regardless of Twain’s legendary intelligence and observational powers, he had his blind spots, and within the Nineties he misplaced his total fortune on a technological gamble that promised to alter the world, however ended up ruining its inventor and backers. That is the story of the Paige Compositor, the machine that bankrupted a literary legend.

All through his life, Twain held a eager curiosity in cutting-edge science and know-how. He was a detailed buddy of patron saint of the Web and potential real-life wizard Nikola Tesla; an early adopter of such newfangled gadgets as the phone, the auto, and air con; and presumably the primary writer in historical past to put in writing a whole manuscript on a typewriter. Which of his novels was composed on this vogue, nevertheless, is hotly debated, with the 2 almost certainly candidates being Tom Sawyer, printed in 1876; and Life on the Mississippi, printed in 1883. However Twain’s enthusiasm usually exceeded his warning, and through the years he would lose giant sums of cash investing in failed innovations starting from telegraphs and engraving machines to a miracle protein powder its inventor claimed might finish famine in India. However his biggest gamble would are available in 1880, when he caught wind of a complicated new machine that promised to fully revolutionize the world of printing and publishing.

In Twain’s day, printing know-how had hardly modified in over 400 years. Whereas fashionable printing presses have been bigger, quicker, and steam-powered, the method of typesetting was nonetheless a sluggish, painstaking, and handbook affair. Simply as that they had within the days of Johann Gutenberg, typesetters sat in entrance of a big multi-compartment body known as a typecase, which held items of moveable sort solid from a lead-tin alloy. Capital letters have been held in higher compartments and common letters in decrease compartments, giving us our fashionable phrases Uppercase and Lowercase. One after the other, the typesetter eliminated items of sort from the typecase and organized them in a handheld body known as a composing stick, including gaps between phrases utilizing lead spacers known as quadrats. As soon as a line of textual content was full, the typesetter handed it to a justifier, who positioned it in a metallic printing body and used extra lead spacers used to set the gaps between strains and the margins across the web page. Because of this at present these gaps are often called main. Utilizing screws constructed into the printing body, the strains of sort have been clamped collectively to type a stable block of textual content known as a forme, which was then loaded into the printing press.

An skilled typesetter and justifier might set round 3,500 to 4,000 ems or letter widths per hour. However following the explosion in recognition of newspapers, periodicals, and different mass publications within the wake of the American Civil Warfare, human fingers might now not sustain with the sheer quantity of printed media being produced. The race was thus on to develop a sensible mechanical typesetting machine. Of the handfuls of inventors scrambling to make this breakthrough, two frontrunners quickly emerged: German Ottmar Mergenthaler and American James W. Paige.

Little or no is understood about Paige outdoors of his invention. Born in January 1842 in Rochester, New York, he possible spent his youth working along with his father within the oil fields out West. In 1872, on the age of 30, Paige utilized for a patent for:

“…a tool, by way of its particular development, to set sort extra quickly and precisely than has been earlier than performed.”

After a number of years of tinkering along with his design, in 1877 Paige was contacted by the Farnham Typesetting Firm, which operated out of a workshop on the Colt Firearms Firm manufacturing facility in Hartford, Connecticut. The corporate was creating an computerized distributor for sorting used sort again into typecases, and requested Paige to mix his machine with theirs to provide a whole computerized typesetter. However on inspecting Farnham’s machine, Paige concluded that the 2 mechanisms have been incompatible, and as an alternative set about designing a completely new machine, which he known as the Paige Compositor.

Comprising some 18,000 intricately-machined components, the Paige Compositor was a marvel of late Nineteenth-Century engineering. Designed to precisely replicate the motion of a human composer, it used a mechanical arm to raise items of sort from a collection of magazines and deposit them in a composing tray, permitting a typesetter to compose a line as quick as they might sort on the built-in keyboard. Paige estimated that his invention might velocity up the method of typesetting by as much as three-fold, revolutionizing the publishing business and making him and his colleagues very rich males. Nevertheless, the complexity of the machine meant that it could take an excessive amount of time – and cash – to good. Farnham thus started in search of traders to bankroll the machine’s improvement. One of many Firm stockholders, Dwight Buell, thought he had the right man: his good buddy Mark Twain.

Whereas Twain could not have been intimately aware of the opposite applied sciences he had backed through the years, he did know a factor or two about printing, having labored as a printer for a lot of his youth. Thus, when Buell knowledgeable him of Paige’s machine, Twain was initially skeptical, stating:

“I knew all about type-setting by sensible expertise, and held the settled and solidified opinion {that a} profitable type-setting machine was an impossibility.”

Upon seeing an early prototype in motion, nevertheless, Twain shortly modified his thoughts, declaring:

“[Its] efficiency did most totally amaze me.”

 Having just lately began accumulating giant royalties from the publication of Tom Sawyer, in 1880 Twain bought $5000 in Farnham inventory, satisfied that Paige’s machine “…would flip up trumps finally.”

Sadly, Twain had not counted on one factor: James Paige’s compulsive perfectionism. An inveterate tinkerer, Paige spent years – and tens of hundreds of his traders’ {dollars} – redesigning and rebuilding his machine in an obsessive quest to achieve mechanical perfection. On a number of events he declared the design fully unworkable and began over from scratch, leading to quite a few interminable delays. Certainly, it was not till 1887 that he lastly accomplished a working prototype and utilized for a full patent. At 218 pages and containing 850 diagrams, Paige’s patent, nicknamed “The Whale”, is the longest ever filed in U.S. historical past, and took an astounding eight years for the Patent Workplace to completely evaluate and approve. In that point, one of many examiners died and, we are able to’t make these things up, one other two went insane and have been dedicated to insane asylums. Whether or not these psychological breakdowns have been really associated to Paige’s invention is just not recorded. And so fiendishly difficult was the machine {that a} scale working mannequin – a typical requirement for patent purposes in these days – was impractical to construct for them, so a Patent Workplace examiner a month in Paige’s workshop evaluating his full-scale prototype. This prolonged improvement course of resulted in Farnham lacking a number of alternatives to exhibit the Paige Compositor, together with an 1891 American Newspaper Publishers’ Affiliation typesetting competitors and the epoch-defining Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893.

But regardless of these delays, Twain, lush with money from the 1884 publication of Huckleberry Finn, remained optimistic, and continued to fund Paige’s enterprise to the tune of $4000 monthly (about $125,000 monthly at present). His religion appeared justified when, on January 5, 1889, he witnessed an illustration of Paige’s perfected prototype, the development of which had been moved to the Pratt and Whitney Firm – later to develop into a number one producer of plane engines. To Twain’s astonishment, the machine allowed a single operator to routinely set, justify, and assemble a web page of sort at a charge of as much as 12,000 Ems per hour and redistribute used sort again into the storage magazines, main him to exclaim in pleasure:

“We solely want another factor, a phonograph on the distributor to yell, “The place in Hell is the printer’s satan [apprentice] , I need extra sort!”… There isn’t a machine that would fake rivalry to it…. Right here [is] a typesetter that doesn’t get drunk, doesn’t be part of the Printers’ Union [and] doesn’t distribute a unclean case.”

Later that day, Twain wrote to buddy in London that:

“…a death-warrant of all different type-setting machines on this world was signed at 12:20 this afternoon.”

Twain boasted to family and friends that the Paige Compositor would make him a millionaire, and that he would wish a number of assistants simply to rely the cash that may quickly be rolling in. However Twain’s victory celebration proved untimely, for in typical vogue Paige continued to obsessively tinker with the machine, additional delaying its entry onto the market. In the meantime, Twain’s large investments within the machine – which had been drawn not solely from his personal royalties however his spouse Olivia’s sizeable inheritance – was starting to take its toll. In 1890 his publishing home collapsed, plunging the household into dire monetary straits. But Twain nonetheless continued to diligently fund Paige’s machine, assuring Olivia that:

“…a foot farther into the ledge and we will strike the vein of gold. When the machine is completed all the things might be all proper once more.”

However nonetheless the delays dragged on, and Twain regularly misplaced his religion within the marvel machine. In determined want of economic aid, in January 1890 he took his outdated buddy John Jones to see the machine within the hopes of getting him to take a position. To his dismay, Paige had fully disassembled the machine and unfold it throughout the store ground. Jones left unimpressed and by no means invested. At his wit’s finish, Twain and his household left the US for Europe, the writer angrily declaring:

“I’ve shook the machine and by no means want to see it or hear it talked about once more.”

However worse was but to come back, for within the meantime a competing machine had pulled forward within the race: Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine. Born in 1854 in Hachtel, Kingdom of Württemberg, Mergenthaler apprenticed as a watchmaker earlier than immigrating to Baltimore in 1872. He quickly started engaged on his personal typesetting machine, which he patented in 1884. In 1886, the primary business Linotype machine was put in on the workplaces of the New York Tribune, the place it was used to typeset the 500-page Tribune Book of Open-Air Sports. Although Paige and his backers have been conscious of those developments, they have been unfazed. An inside supply on the Tribune knowledgeable Twain that the Linotype was delicate and temperamental, and as a consequence of frequent breakdowns might barely match the three,500 Ems per hour velocity of a handbook typesetter. The Paige typesetter, in contrast, was often reaching speeds of 5,000 Ems per hour. Assured in his machine’s superiority, in 1892 Paige organized for the American Newspaper Publishers’ Affiliation to conduct a non-public check of his Compositor on the Pratt & Whitney workshop. The outcomes have been gorgeous, with the machine reaching composing speeds two or 3 times that of its rivals. The ANPA committee wrote glowing opinions, and hundreds of orders got here flooding into Farnham’s workplaces for Paige Compositors.

This gorgeous success was sufficient to reignite Mark Twain’s curiosity within the machine, and in 1893 he and his fellow traders signed a contract with Chicago industrialist Towner Ok Webster to provide 3,000 items. The next yr, James Scott, president of the ANPA and writer of the Chicago Herald & Submit, agreed to check out the Paige Compositor in his pressroom. At first the 60-day trial went properly, an ecstatic Twain reporting that the machine:

“…delivered extra corrected dwell matter to the imposing stone, prepared for the types, than any one of many thirty-two Linotypes in the identical composing division….it appears to me that issues couldn’t properly be going higher at Chicago.”

But it surely was to not final, for the machine quickly started affected by mangled sort and different issues, inflicting vital printing delays. Because the machine was too advanced for the Herald’s in-house mechanic to know – not to mention restore – Paige needed to be summoned personally to have a tendency to each breakdown. Whereas the Paige Compositor proved no much less dependable than the first-generation Linotype and different competing typesetting machines, its nice complexity and the acute precision of its components made it uneconomical to provide in business portions. In the meantime, Mergenthaler had produced a brand new, way more dependable model of the Linotype, inflicting gross sales to steadily choose up. By the tip of 1892 there have been greater than 500 Linotypes in operation in additional than 30 newspaper pressrooms throughout the nation. By 1894, it was clear that Mergenthaler had gained the race. Inside a couple of months, orders for the Paige Compositor dwindled from 4,000 to zero, and shortly thereafter the traders dissolved the corporate. Paige’s dream was formally lifeless.

In all, Paige’s traders had poured almost $2 million {dollars} into the enterprise, and all they needed to present for it was six manufacturing machines constructed at an astronomical $15,000 apiece. Twain himself invested $180,000 – almost $7 million in at present’s cash – and in 1894 was compelled to declare chapter. Although this declaration formally cleared him of all obligations, by ebook gross sales and talking excursions Twain was nonetheless capable of repay all his collectors and regain a level of economic stability. Nonetheless, he by no means absolutely forgave Paige, writing in his autobiography that:

“Paige and I all the time meet on effusively affectionate phrases; and but he is aware of completely properly that if I had his nuts in a steel-trap I might shut out all human succor and watch that lure until he died.”

Inform us how you actually really feel, Mark…

As for Paige himself, he fared considerably worse. After dropping his total life’s financial savings within the Panic of 1893, he died penniless and alone in a Chicago poorhouse on December 1, 1917, his sole declare to fame being the person who helped bankrupt some of the profitable and revered authors in historical past.

However why did Mergenthaler’s Linotype, which at first appeared no extra dependable than the Paige Compositor, win out in the long run? Along with having a temperamental, perfectionist inventor, the Paige Compositor suffered from one other basic flaw: its translation of the typesetting course of from man to machine was far too literal. By precisely replicating the motions of a human typesetter, Paige created a machine that was too difficult to be economically viable. The Linotype, in contrast, labored on a totally totally different and way more sturdy precept. As a substitute of setting precise sort, the Linotype as an alternative set small metallic moulds often called matrices, which have been saved in vertical magazines within the prime of the machine. Each time the operator hit a key, the corresponding matrix would drop from the journal right into a composing tray. As soon as a whole line was composed, it could be transferred into the machine’s casting module, the place the matrices have been used to solid a stable line of sort or slug from a lead-tin alloy. A number of slugs might have been stacked right into a forme and loaded into the printing press, whereas the matrices have been fed again into the Linotype and sorted again into their respective magazines through an elaborate conveyor system. As soon as a set of slugs had been used, they’d be fed again into the machine, melted down, and the entire course of would begin over once more. Along with being less complicated, extra sturdy, and cheaper to fabricate than the Paige Compositor, the Linotype system neatly solved one other basic downside with computerized typesetting: the sheer quantity of sort required. As sure letters are used repeatedly on any given web page and a sure forme of sort is perhaps used for a very long time earlier than being damaged up, an computerized typesetter would require a unprecedented quantity of metallic sort with a view to work at full capability. However for the reason that Linotype units matrices as an alternative of sort, works one line at a time, and recycles the matrices after each line, the full variety of matrices required is considerably decreased, serving to to make the machine less complicated and extra compact.

For these causes, it was the Linotype and never the Paige Compositor which went on to revolutionize the publishing business. The machines have been the workhorses of newspaper pressrooms all over the world for over 100 years, with the final items not being retired till the early Eighties. Certainly, so vital was Mergenthaler’s innovation that no much less a determine than inventor Thomas Edison declared the Linotype the “eighth marvel of the world.”

As for the six Paige Compositors manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, 4 have been scrapped following the dissolution of Paige’s firm. The remaining two have been bought by the Mergenthaler firm in 1898, with one being offered to Cornell College and the opposite was to Columbia College. The Columbia machine is believed to have been scrapped throughout World Warfare II as a part of a wartime scrap metallic drive, whereas the Cornell machine was returned to Mergenthaler and later donated to the Mark Twain Dwelling in Hartford, Connecticut, the place it stays on show to today – the final remnant of a curious and disastrous chapter within the nice writer’s life.

But regardless of almost dropping all the things he had, Twain selected to take the entire debacle in stride, reflecting upon the affair in his inimitably pithy type:

See Also

“I discovered two issues from the expertise: to not make investments when you possibly can’t afford to, and to not make investments when you possibly can.”

When you favored this text, you may additionally get pleasure from our new well-liked podcast, The BrainFood Present (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), in addition to:

Increase for References

Lundin, Leigh, Tom Sawyer and the Diabolus Ex Machina, Legal Temporary, Might 22, 2022,


Lienhard, John, No.1372: The Paige Compositor, Engines of Our Ingenuity, College of Houston,


Mark Twain, James W. Paige, and the Paige Typesetter, Twain Quotes,


The Paige Compositor, Circuitous Root,


The Paige Compositor, Codex 99,





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