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Ottmar Mergenthaler
May 14, 1854 – October 28,1899

Ottmar Mergenthaler, from Hachtel in Baden-Württemberg's Tauber valley, has been called a second Gutenberg. Like Gutenberg, Mergenthaler revolutionized the art of printing. Prior to Mergenthaler's invention of the linotype, no newspaper in the world had more than eight pages.

Born May 11, 1854, Mergenthaler was the son of a poor village school teacher who moved soon after Ottmar's birth to Ensingen, on the Enz river. There the clock in the church's bell tower had stood still for years, and no clockmaker had been able to repair it. One evening, however, the bells suddenly rang at evensong. "The schoolmaster's boy has done it!" was the surprised reaction.

Mergenthaler's ambition at that time was to become a watchmaker. Although his father was initially opposed to the idea, after some hesitation he apprenticed him to a relative named Hahl in Bietigheim, where he soon earned a journeyman's wage. "Here," he later recalled, "I learned precision and recognized that one has to look at the mechanism as a whole if a watch is to function." 

One day he admitted to his master that he wanted to go to America. Again there were problems with his family and also with Hahl. In the end, Hahl's son in Washington paid for his passage. On October 26, 1872, the "Berlin" docked in Baltimore, bringing 500 passengers in steerage. Among them was a slender, handsome young man of medium height with blue eyes and red-blond hair, carrying only a wooden suitcase carved by peasants from his neighborhood.

At first, Mergenthaler worked on knives and tools in August Hahl's shop, and obtained his first patent at the age of 20. As business was rather poor, Hahl moved to Baltimore where Mergenthaler became a member of the Liederkranz Society and of the German Turnverein. He always had more ideas than time to execute them. Word of his talents soon spread.

Mergenthaler's Linotype Machine

Ottmar Mergenthaler's Linotype Machine.

 

 

 


On August 17, 1876, a stranger, Charles Moore, entered the shop, of which Mergenthaler had become co-owner. Moore told him he held a patent on a typewriter for newspapers which was designed to eliminate type-setting by hand, but that it just did not work. He asked Mergenthaler whether he could construct a better model. Mergenthaler promptly recognized that Moore's design was faulty, but set about improving it. Two years later, he had assembled a machine that stamped letters and words on cardboard. But that was not what he had envisioned. 
He then worked like a man possessed to construct what was to capture the attention of the world under the name of "Linotype" In doing so, he had to overcome many diffiulties. One night, fire destroyed the shop, including all his designs and models. He knew, however, that if he succeeded, his invention would mean "more books --- more education for all. At home we had no money for school books..." 
He found a supporter in Whitelaw Reid of the New York Tribune. Finally, while riding on a train, the idea came to him: why a separate machine for casting and another for stamping? Why not stamp the letters and immediately cast them in metal in the same machine? Mergenthaler reportedly got the idea for the brass matrices that would serve as molds for the letters from wooden molds used to make "Springerle," which are German Christmas cookies. As a boy he had carved a Springerle mold for his stepmother.
Louis C. Schneidereith was a friend of Ottmar's and was witness to the evolution of the Linotype. The Mergenthaler machine shop was just several doors down the same street in downtown Baltimore as the Schneidereith printing firm. That street was Mercer St. and the site lies beneath the old Allfirst Bank's main building which was constructed over both sides of that street, totally blocking it. Mercer now dead-ends at the back loading dock of that building, and that is where the two establishments were.Much effort and another fifty patents were required before Mergenthaler could show a more or less usable model to the New York Tribune on July 3, 1886. There followed fights with shareholders and unions. And the press even in Germany attacked him vehemently. Finally success came with many honors, including a trip to his old home town.
Soon afterwards, Mergenthaler contracted tuberculosis and died at the early age of 44 in Baltimore on October 28, 1899.
His invention, which was in use until the arrival of first photo- and then computerized setting in the 1970’s, is commemorated in Zion with a portion of the “Industry” window in the narthex representing Mergenthaler's Blower Linotype. In 1935, Zion received a precious gift from his widow: the chandelier and the four wall sconces lighting and adorning our library. They are said to have hung in their home at 159 W. Lanvale Street in the Bolton Hill area.
Baltimore’s vocational High School is named after him – most people just use the abbreviated version “MERVO”.
Mergenthaler Hall on the Homewood campus of the Johns Hopkins University was constructed in 1940-1941 with money provided by Eugene and Mrs. Ottmar Mergenthaler, son and widow of Ottmar Mergenthaler.
This article was compiled using information on http://www.cazoo.org/library/OttmarMergenthaler.html , an article by Professor Michael Spear: http://oncampus.richmond.edu/academics/journalism/lino.html  , a Zion newsletter from 1935, correspondence from Mr. William Schneidereith, and research by Mrs. Olga Hutchins. Thank You!

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