July 1, 2021
Back before the internet sent us all the news straight to our phones, everyone relied on newspapers to keep us informed. A century ago, the newspaper industry was big business. Rival publishers fought each other to get the news out faster and to sell more newspapers. The technology of the time, however, severely limited the publication process.
In 1886, Ottmar Mergenthaler, shown here in a colorized photograph, a German immigrant who resettled in Baltimore, debuted his revolutionary new invention, the Linotype machine. This machine radically transformed the newspaper industry, leading fellow inventor Thomas Edison to dub it the “8th Wonder of the World.” Let’s take a look at how the Linotype changed printing and why it was worthy of such praise.
The Old Way of Printing
Prior to 1886, newspapers required a staff of typesetters to arrange the letters by hand. All the letters. Typesetters had to pick out the correct letter, carved into a wooden block, of the correct size from a bin of letters to spell out every word of every sentence of every article. As you can imagine, this was a long and tedious job. It took so much time, in fact, that publishers found it necessary to limit the number of pages in the newspaper. The maximum number of pages a publisher could have typeset and printed in a timely manner was eight.