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Linotype Invented and Built in Baltimore

linotype-locust-point

The lost Mergenthaler factory, ca. 1890, Locust Point, Baltimore. (Courtesy of RIT Press)

Baltimore, Maryland, is well known as the birthplace of the typesetting machine that revolutionized publishing: the Linotype, invented by German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler in 1886. However, it has not been widely recognized that Baltimore also played a pivotal role as the original manufacturing center for the machine that replaced Gutenberg’s handset typesetting method, a mechanical marvel that Thomas Edison called “the eighth wonder of the world.”

Mergenthaler’s early efforts to invent, improve, and manufacture the complex machine are recounted in his own words by Frank J. Romano in the new History of the Linotype Company (RIT Press, 2014). The book reprints excerpts from Mergenthaler’s autobiography that detail his early manufacturing success in Baltimore, his struggles with his financial backers, and the location of his long-forgotten Linotype factory.

According to Linotype lore, the machine was invented in Baltimore but manufactured in Brooklyn, New York, where the Linotype Company established a massive factory in 1889 that would produce tens of thousands of machines into the 1970s. Docents at the Baltimore Museum of Industry print shop—home of one of the few remaining operating Linotypes—have long told the tale that Mergenthaler’s Linotype-making equipment and plans were whisked away under cover of night from his Baltimore shop to Brooklyn by his frustrated financial backers when the perfectionist inventor refused to stop tinkering with the machine’s design so full-scale production could begin.

Mergenthaler’s own account of the start of Linotype production tells a very different story. (In fact, the very existence of an autobiography busts another long-held Mergenthaler myth: that his memoir was lost in a fire. According to Romano, Mergenthaler’s version of the Linotype’s early history published in 1898 was suppressed by one of his financial backers—New York Herald publisher Whitelaw Reid—who succeeded in buying up most of the copies after Mergenthaler’s death in 1899.)

The first Linotype to be put to practical use—the “Blower Model”—was manufactured by Mergenthaler from 1886 to 1888 in his workshop on Camden and S. Howard streets in downtown Baltimore. Company directors restricted the use of these first one hundred Linotypes to a small group of newspaper publishers who had helped finance the machine. As a result, the new invention was not finding a market and company finances faltered.

At this early point in the Linotype’s life, the revolutionary machine narrowly escaped extinction. It was not earning revenue for its investors. Mergenthaler was prohibited by the company from making improvements on the troublesome Blower model. And, as a result of this and other disagreements with management, Mergenthaler severed ties with the company in March 1888 and his workshop in Baltimore was moved to Brooklyn. A few months later Mergenthaler suffered an attack of pleurisy, foreshadowing the respiratory problems that would cut short his life at the age of 45.

But the tide quickly turned in favor of the Linotype. By the end of 1888, Mergenthaler regained his health and completed plans for a much-improved machine: the “Model 1” that would be the forerunner of the standard machine. In 1889, new management took over the company. In 1890, Mergenthaler resumed work for the company, receiving contracts to build the Model 1 Linotype at his new “Ott. Mergenthaler and Co.” factory in the Locust Point neighborhood of Baltimore.

The first new machines began rolling out of Mergenthaler’s factory in January 1891, followed soon after by machines from the company’s own Brooklyn plant. A total of 525 Model 1 Linotypes were produced in Baltimore by 1894 when Mergenthaler ended his active management of the Baltimore operation due to failing health. The equipment in the factory was eventually purchased by the Linotype company and moved to Brooklyn, ending Baltimore’s role in manufacturing the machine.

The existence of Mergenthaler’s Locust Point factory was lost to history until the publication of Romano’s Linotype history. The book not only gives Mergenthaler’s account of the work done at the factory, it pinpoints the factory’s location at “the corner of Claggett and Allen streets.” Those streets and the factory itself have been erased from the Baltimore landscape by subsequent development.

The exact location of Mergenthaler’s historic Linotype factory was rediscovered on April 19, 2015, by Baltimore Museum of Industry volunteers working with Baltimore-based Boomerang Geospatial LLC. Using a 1906 Baltimore city map that shows the Mergenthaler factory and the vanished streets, geographic information system (GIS) software, and a GPS smartphone app, Boomerang’s Maggie Cawley and BMI volunteer Steve Cole pinpointed the factory site in the new McHenry Row development. The location is currently occupied by a parking garage bordering Key Highway, immediately south of the water tower (1631 Whetstone Way).

Mergenthaler’s Linotype factory was less than half a mile from the Baltimore Museum of Industry (1415 Key Highway), where on most Saturday’s visitors can see “the eighth wonder of the world” (circa 1936) still spitting out hot metal type. The museum archives holds one of the few surviving copies of Mergenthaler’s long-lost autobiography—Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler and History of the Linotype, Its Invention and Development (Baltimore, 1898)—thanks to a generous donation by Frank Romano.

Comments

  1. I read your very interesting article about the history of linotype, and I just wanted to inform you about the unique in Greece Museum of Typography, located in Chania/Crete. The latest donation to our museum was a Linotype with four magazines. from an old printing house in Athens. One of the few remaining linotype operators in Greece repaired it for us and now we are proud to say that it is fully functional!
    Please check out our website (http://www.typography-museum.gr) for more information about the museum, although this donation was very recent and you won’t read about it on our website.

    Thank you for your time.

    Elia Koumi

  2. That is wonderful. One more Linotype brought back to life! Congratulations.

  3. Interested parties may find this parts catalogue of interested.

    https://archive.org/details/OttmarMergenthalerCompanyCatalogueA1898

    The indication there was two sources of parts for Linotype.

    George Finn Linotype Mechanic

  4. And here’s videographic evidence of the actual rediscovery of Mergenthaler’s Linotype factory in Baltimore. Shows you where the site is now:
    https://www.facebook.com/steve.cole.7359/videos/vb.100003373068698/712722885516807/?type=2&theater

  5. Paul Seidenzahl, Sr. 31 August, 2015 at 1:02 am

    There is a company on S. Eden street that had a Linotype they used everyday. I don’t know if they still have it. The company was The Furst Printing Company. John Furst is the owner.

  6. Sue Hetherington 13 July, 2018 at 2:49 pm

    I have a catalog titled “Type Designs and Hand Lettering Styles of Photo Lettering by Bruno. Division of Linotype Composition Company 7 S. Gay St. Baltimore”. It appears to be from the 50’s or 60’s. It also has stamped on the back “Return to the Art Department The Glenn L. Martin Co.

    If you would like pictures of this, I can email them to you. Would this be of any interest to the museum?

  7. Dear Sue,

    If the catalogue has samples of Greek fonts I would very much like pictures from these pages.

    Best regards,

    Georgios Matthiopoulos
    Type designer
    Greek Font Society
    gfsmat59@gmail.com
    http://www.greekfontsociety-gfs.gr

  8. We at the museum are very familiar with “Bruno” (Woerhle) and the Linotype Composition Company and have a version of the catalog you mentioned. A lot of the printing equipment/materials we have in the Baltimore Museum of Industry print shop were donated by Bruno long ago. And our top Linotype volunteer, Ray Loomis, actually worked for Bruno in downtown Baltimore. The Glenn Martin Co. was a big industrial firm in Baltimore; I think they designed/built aircraft and other aerospace-type equipment. We have a display about them in the museum. Likely that your copy was used by the art department at the Martin Co. in ordering type from Bruno’s firm.

  9. I have been researching a character, Carroll Elliott Bailey, about 1885-1936 originally from Wash DC, attended, Johns Hopkins and Cornell, worked for the Linotype Corp c. 1901 in Philadelphia. I am seeking anything related to this person and/or the Linotype Corp in Philadelphia. Bailey also worked for the JG White engineering Co., NY,NY.
    Pls. respond to Easternfirefly@gmail.com
    Thank you, Don T.

  10. Have you checked with Frank Romano, who wrote that big book about the history of the Linotype Company?

  11. I just saw your response Frank. Ordered the book from my local library.

    Carroll Elliott Bailey had a strange connection to my story. As a recent graduate from Cornell abt 1889 his first jobs were in Philadelphia. He is shown in images from the U. S. Carolina photo archives (search Billings Family Albums) where he romps leisurely with the Billings family in Bay Head NJ. images abt (1903-1910).
    He attains a high position with the JG White Engineering Co. becoming a director. He marries in 1917. Along with millions he is distroyed by the Great Depression. Helpful reporting by the Cornell Library shows C.E. Bailey dies in 1934,”by his own hand”.
    How he found a connection to the Billings family is still a mystery.
    Sr John Shaw Billings deigned the Medical Library in wash.DC. Another character, Charles L. Pack (very wealthy) also contributed. He may have been a go-between.
    Any help on this topic will be appreciated

  12. A few years ago I watched a CD about the birth of the Linotype machine. Included in this was about several people tha travel the US repairing the Linotype machine. Does anyone know if this CD is still available

  13. “Linotype: The Film” from 2012 is the documentary you’re thinking of. Check here for ordering: http://www.linotypefilm.com/. Not sure if they are out of stock, but I believe the film can be streamed from various services. (BTW: the itinerant Linotype fixer in the film is Dave Seats, who is still on the road, thankfully!)

  14. Hi,
    I just purchased a press plate from the fifties for American Airlines and was looking to learn more about it, and the process that created it.
    I mirrored the image to make it readable. It’s 12″ x 5.5″ and VERY heavy, for as thin as it is (about an eighth of an inch). The base is non-magnetic and the embossed images look to be brass. I assume it was a newspaper ad.
    https://i.ibb.co/bv338fp/mirrored-press-plate.jpg
    Any info or direction would be greatly appreciated.
    Thanks,
    Rick Smith

  15. I found this article very interesting. I am a direct descendant of Ottmar, lifelong Baltimorean, and my father’s career was a machinist on the Linotype until the industry moved to computerization. I always thought Ottmar’s shop was on Bank Street, so find your information interesting.

    Thanks,
    Jan Mergenthaler O’Brien

  16. His FIRST shop where he invented the Linotype was on Bank St. The factory in Locust Point came later when he began manufacturing the machine. Great to know a Mergenthaler still lives in Baltimore!

  17. My grandfather worked at Morganthaler’s, in Brooklyn, during the war. I believe they made bomb sights. Is that possible/likely? Also, does anyone know where in Brooklyn they were located?

  18. As a journalism major at the University of Kentucky in early 1950s I was introduced to Linotypes located in the school’s basement printing plant. Early in my limited career as a weekly newspaper editor and owner, I became self-taught just enough to create havoc with those angry, frustrating, hot led spewing monsters.

    In the 60s we faced significant reductions in qualified Linotype repair personnel, which significantly hampered deadlines. As such, I used to fly my company airplane to Chicago where one overworked gentleman would travel almost anywhere to help slice away down time frantic publishers faced because of the Mergenthaler curse. Indeed, Linotypes were extremely complicated machines.

    As such, an old tale prevailed for many decades about Ott winding up in an insane asylum. Untrue from what research I have done, it still made a good story because of the ending: “Only a crazy person could have invented such a tool!”

  19. Tom: I’ve never heard of the “Mergenthaler Curse,” but can appreciate where that sentiment comes from. Have other readers heard of this? Fascinating!

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