A fearsome battle about the future was being fought. It wasn’t about political philosophy, geopolitical boundaries or land rights. It was about the future of printing, more specifically composition and typesetting. The battle in 1895 pitted an unknown watchmaker Ottmar Mergenthaler against one of America’s premiere humorists Mark Twain and an inventor James W. Paige.
The battle waged over which new mechanical device would replace the laborious and tedious work of hand setting type letter-by-letter with a new more mechanized solution. The work was difficult, the machines were complex and dangerous. The improvements in productivity and the gains in the consumption of printed material were enormous as a result of this extraordinary innovation.
One of these machines drove Mark Twain into bankruptcy. Twain so believed in the Paige Compositor he spent over $350,000 (about $5.8 million in today’s dollars) on the invention writing check after check to support the dream. He burned through his earnings as an author and the inheritance of his wife, Olivia. The other machine, became the centerpiece of the revolution in line composition, typography and typeface design as both craft and art. Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine brought about extraordinary changes to the typesetting and offset printing industry.
I had the privilege of joining with a festive crowd of industry veterans at the Baltimore Museum of Industry to view the recently released documentary “Linotype – The Film”. The collective knowledge, experience and wisdom in that room was a marvel to behold. Women and men who had operated the Linotype during their career shared tales of their experiences. Being sprayed with hot lead or catching a hand or a finger in the gears of the machine. Knowing just by the sound of the machine that a malfunction was at hand. The wonder and marvel of this huge mechanical device forming lines of type consistently and at a speed previously unknown to the industry. The Baltimore Museum of Industry has a working Linotype machine and an extraordinary array of printing equipment from an earlier time. It’s fascinating to be able to see and hear the Linotype machine whir, click and clink its way to the creation of a line of lead type. The nostalgia in the Museum’s print shop, among the assembled crowds and indeed throughout the documentary itself was thick and wistful.
For leaders, it was a vast reminder of how quickly our environments can change. How do we choose between one technology or the other? In today’s social media, digital frameworks and e-tools there will surely be winners and losers, just as there were between the Linotype machine and the Paige Compositor. As a leader how do you choose? What criteria gives you the edge in making the right choice? What have you already learned that will strengthen your decision-making powers? The fear of lost jobs with automation in typesetting was hugely disorienting. Yet, growing productivity in typesetting gave rise to a huge demand in printed materials, which in turn gave rise to more jobs and opportunities. No one could have known or guessed such an outcome. Where are those opportunities today?
While the legacy of the Linotype machine still lives on in museums and printing shops around the United States and in parts of the Continent, the one and only surviving Paige Compositor can be found at Mark Twain’s homestead in Hartford, Connecticut. Leadership can be a lonely place when you make the wrong bet.