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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.