Codex 99

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The Paige Compositor, click for larger image

Detail, The Paige Compositor. G. A. Avery for Scientific American, 1904. Courtesy David MacMillan 1


The Paige Compositor

Twain, Paige and the Machine that Destroyed Them

In 1848 Samuel Langhorne Clemens, then 13, began an apprenticeship as a printer's devil with Joseph Ament and his Missouri Courier. Two years later he became a typesetter for his brother Orion’s Western Union. At 17 he left Hannibal to become a journeyman printer. First in St. Louis for the Evening News, then New York for John A. Gray (1853), then Philadelphia for the Inquirer (1853), then Keokruk, Iowa with his brothers for the Keokuk Journal (1855) and finally Cincinnati for the steam press of Wrightson and Co. (1856).2

Samuel Clemens portriat, click for larger image

Clemens with a composing stick, 29 Nov 1850. Wikipedia

After his job in Cincinnati Clemens would become, among other things, a riverboat pilot, correspondent, editor, inventor, publisher, prospector, and investor. Of course along the way he became Mark Twain and wrote, as Hemingway said, the novel that “all modern American literature comes from.”

Despite his fame and fortune however, Twain remained fascinated by printing and technology and this fascination would ultimately prove ruinous.

The industrial revolution brought great advances to commercial printing. Fourdrinier invented the continuous-roll paper machine in 1806. Koenig invented the steam press in 1811 and Hoe introduced the rotary press in 1846. Less successful, however, were attempts to mechanize composing. Church (1822), Young and Delcambre (1840) and Mitchel (1853) all tried to construct automated typesetters, but by the time Clemens was setting type in Hannibal he was still using a composing stick the same way Gutenberg had done 400 years before.3

The 1872 typesetter, click for larger image

Paige’s 1872 typesetter.

Enter James William Paige. Paige, from Rochester, NY, patented a machine in 1872 that could set agate (5½ pt) type.4 In 1877 he went into partnership with J. M. Farnham and the Farnham Typesetting Co in Hartford, CT with the intention of combining his typesetter with their distributor.5 This turned out to impractical and soon Paige began work on a completely new design – the Paige Compositor. By 1878 he had a (barely) working prototype.

In 1880 Clemens, at the urging of his friend Dwight Buell, invested 2000 USD in Farnham stock. After he saw the machine he was mesmerized. He pledged an additional 3000 dollars (his first royalties from Huckleberry Finn) and as he later wrote “that’s when the music begins.” 6

Paige spent the decade obsessively tinkering with the Compositor. He added new features (the justifier alone added several years to the project) and continually tore down, redesigned and rebuilt assemblies. He even rebuilt the entire machine from scratch in 1886.

Meanwhile Clemens was falling further into the rabbit-hole. On 6 Feb 1886 he entered into a contract to capitalize and promote the machine for half of Paige’s profits. By the end of the decade he was bankrolling Paige to the tune of 3000 USD/month.

The Paige Compositor, click for larger image

The Paige Compositor, click for larger image

The Paige Compositor, click for larger image

Views of he Paige machine. From Legros and Grant (ref. 4), via ref. 1

In theory the Compositor was indeed the perfect typesetter. As Thompson wrote in the Inland Printer: “An adept operator could assemble certain syllables and even complete words at the 109-character keyboard. The justifier utilized 11 different sizes of spaces to fill the spacing between words. The distributor, as it returned the dead matter to its proper channels, removed any damaged or bent type.” It was also one of the most complicated machines ever built, containing more than 18,000 parts including “800 shaft bearings and cams and springs innumerable.”

This complexity is perhaps best seen in Paige’s epic 1887 patent application which included 275 drawing sheets, 123 specification sheets and 613 claims.7 “The Whale” as it was known by the Patent Office was the largest patent application in US history. It took eight years to review, with one examiner spending a month onsite with the machine, another dying during review and yet another going insane.

The Paige Patent, click for larger image

The Paige Patent, click for larger image The Paige Patent, click for larger image

The Paige Patent, click for larger image

Example patent drawings. From ref. 1

Of course Paige wasn't the only one working on a typesetter. In Jul 1886 Ottmar Mergenthaler’s first Linotype was installed at the New York Tribune.8 Paige and Clemens were aware of this development but weren't particularly concerned. Twain wrote: “I am unaffrighted and am still at work building my type-setter.”

Page continued to tinker with the Compositor and by 1889 had apparently conducted successful tests. Clemens wrote on his notebook on 5 Jan: “a death-warrant of all other type-setting machines in this world was signed at 12:20 this afternoon.”

It would still be another four years of tinkering and adjusting before the Compositor was used in a pressroom. On 20 Sept 1894 the Chicago Herald began a 60 day test of the machine. It turned out to be a disaster: delays became longer and type began to break. Paige had to be summoned to repair the machine – it was simply too complex for anyone else to understand, let alone fix. The Herald gave up and it was the end for Paige and his Compositor. The Linotype, which Clemens had so quickly dismissed, had won the battle and would go on to become, in the words of Thomas Edison, “the Eighth Wonder of the World.”

In all investors had put more than two million USD into Paige’s machine. Clemens had lost some 190,000 USD – not just his book royalties but also a significant portion of his wife Olivia’s inheritance. He was forced to declare bankruptcy (although through speaking tours he did eventually repay his creditors). Paige faded into obscurity and died penniless in 1917.

The Paige Compositor

The Compositor in situ at Cornell, ca.1898. Cornell

1. Used here by kind permission of David MacMillan and his absolutely wonderful Circuitous Root Type- foundry and Press. In researching this post your humble narrator has spent entirely too much time on his site. The Internet could use less Tumblrs, Pinterest boards, Imgur and Instagram pages and more sites like this.

2. For more about Twain and printing see: Michelson, Bruce. Printer’s Devil: Mark Twain And the American Publishing Revolution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006. The first chapter, which describes the Paige compositor is online.

3. The classic history of typesetting machines is Legros, Lucian A and Grant, John. Typographical Printing Surfaces: The Technology and Mechanism of Their Production. London: Williams Clowes & Sons, 1916, which is available on Google. At nearly 1000 pages it is not exactly light reading. A shorter title is Thompson, John. History of composing Machines. Chicago: The Inland Printer, 1904. (online).

4. Paige, James W. “Improvement in Type-Setting Machines.” US patent 157,694. 15 Dec 1874.

5. To replace hand composition a machine had to do essentially three things. 1. Select the appropriate foundry type or matrices from a type case (usually via a keyboard) 2. Compose and properly justify the selected type or matrices into a line of text. 3. Correctly distribute the used type or matrices back into the case. It would be one of the great mechanical challenges of the late 19th century.

6. For more on the story of Clemens and the Paige Compositor see: Lee, J. Y., “Anatomy of a Fascinating Failure.” American Heritage of Invention and Technology, 1987 Summer;1(1): 55–60. Goble, Corban. “Mark Twain’s Nemesis: The Paige Compositor.” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass, 1985. available at ERIC. Collins, Paul. “Histories: Mark Twain’s Big Mistake.” New Scientist. 2005 Dec;190(2528): 54–57

7. The USPTO split the original application into two separate patents: Paige, James William. “Machine for Distributing, Setting, and Justifying Type.” US patent 547,861. 15 Oct 1895, and Paige, James William, North, Charles. “Automatic Type-Justifying Machine.” US patent 547,861. 15 Oct 1895.

8. We will assuredly revisit the Linotype at some point, but in the meantime see: Wilson, Doug. “The Eighth Wonder.” Codex. 2011 Spring;1(1): 16-29. Wilson was the director of Linotype: the Film (2012).

19 Jun 2012 ‧ Typographia Historia