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The Paige Compositor

May 5, 2011

I have been obsessing on Mark Twain since we started Letters From Earth. His intrest with the written word ran so deep that he must have put a large amount of himself in this enormous machine. It saddens me to imagine what one would undergo acknowledging the demise of an endeavor of engineering such as this. The Linotype bettered the Paige Compositor it was invented by a German clock maker, Ottmar Mergenthlar.

In the late nineteenth century, the Paige Compositor was created to replace the human typesetter of a printing press with a mechanical arm. Unfortunately, the machine was not nearly as precise as it should have been and never turned a profit because of its continual need for adjustment based upon trial and error.

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), who had set type by hand in his youth, had believed that a mechanical composer was beyond the realm of possibility. In 1880, however, he invested $2,000 in an early typesetter invented by James W. Paige. Both Clemens and Paige dreamed of immense wealth that would be generated by selling thousands of Paige Compositors. Clemens’ fame as an author and humorist lent a certain aura to the proceedings. Both men were sustained by an unshakeable belief in the ultimate success of the Compositor. Newspapers, toward the end of the 19th century, were keenly interested in a revolutionary device that would lower composition costs, increase profits, and expand the amount of reading matter. The Paige Compositor, with Clemens as its principal promoter, impressed both printers and publishers. Paige, though, tinkered with its design so frequently that no practical test of the Compositor could be undertaken until 1894. The machine, with its 18,000 parts, was judged to be too complicated and too expensive for practical use. Only two prototypes were built, and Clemens lost his $190,000 investment. The Paige Compositor approached the marketplace too late for serious consideration by newspapers and printing companies. Capitalists declined to finance it. By the mid-1890s, the state of the art had passed over the Paige and its brilliant capacity to set, justify and distribute foundry type. The Linotype, which composed type lines in a hot-metal process, became the popular machine at newspapers and printing offices.

here is a link to a Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (68th, Memphis, TN, August 3-6, 1985). About the machine.

Page at ERIC

Only two prototypes were built but there is apparently one of these machines still in existence at the Mark Twain museum in Hartford Connecticut, I will have to make a visit.   Most recently I have been listening to “Ruffing it” on audio book, a great listening experience.

Thank you Mr. Samuel Clemens

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