The Machine that Bankrupted Mark Twain
Samuel Langhorne Clemens, aka Mark Twain, is one of the most important and celebrated American writers and wits in history. His keen observations and biting satires of 19th Century America remain beloved classics to this day, while his pithy quips will likely continue to infest our social media feeds for decades more to come. Yet despite Twain’s legendary intelligence and observational powers, he had his blind spots, and in the 1890s he lost his entire fortune on a technological gamble that promised to change the world, but ended up ruining its inventor and backers. This is the story of the Paige Compositor, the machine that bankrupted a literary legend.
Throughout his life, Twain held a keen interest in cutting-edge science and technology. He was a close friend of patron saint of the Internet and possible real-life wizard Nikola Tesla; an early adopter of such newfangled devices as the telephone, the automobile, and air conditioning; and possibly the first author in history to write an entire manuscript on a typewriter. Which of his novels was composed in this fashion, however, is hotly debated, with the two most likely candidates being Tom Sawyer, published in 1876; and Life on the Mississippi, published in 1883. But Twain’s enthusiasm often exceeded his caution, and over the years he would lose large sums of money investing in failed inventions ranging from telegraphs and engraving machines to a miracle protein powder its inventor claimed could end famine in India. But his greatest gamble would come in 1880, when he caught wind of a sophisticated new machine that promised to completely revolutionize the world of printing and publishing.
In Twain’s day, printing technology had hardly changed in over 400 years. While modern printing presses were larger, faster, and steam-powered, the process of typesetting was still a slow, painstaking, and manual affair. Just as they had in the days of Johann Gutenberg, typesetters sat in front of a large multi-compartment frame called a typecase, which held pieces of moveable type cast from a lead-tin alloy. Capital letters were held in upper compartments and regular letters in lower compartments, giving us our modern terms Uppercase and Lowercase. One at a time, the typesetter removed pieces of type from the typecase and arranged them in a handheld frame called a composing stick, adding gaps between words using lead spacers called quadrats. Once a line of text was complete, the typesetter passed it to a justifier, who placed it in a metal printing frame and used more lead spacers used to set the gaps between lines and the margins around the page. This is why today these gaps are known as leading. Using screws built into the printing frame, the lines of type were clamped together to form a solid block of text called a forme, which was then loaded into the printing press.
An experienced typesetter and justifier could set around 3,500 to 4,000 ems or letter widths per hour. But following the explosion in popularity of newspapers, periodicals, and other mass publications in the wake of the American Civil War, human hands could no longer keep up with the sheer volume of printed media being produced. The race was thus on to develop a practical mechanical typesetting machine. Of the dozens of inventors scrambling to make this breakthrough, two frontrunners soon emerged: German Ottmar Mergenthaler and American James W. Paige.
Very little is known about Paige outside of his invention. Born in January 1842 in Rochester, New York, he likely spent his youth working with his father in the oil fields out West. In 1872, at the age of 30, Paige applied for a patent for:
“…a device, by means of its special construction, to set type more rapidly and accurately than has been before done.”
After several years of tinkering with his design, in 1877 Paige was contacted by the Farnham Typesetting Company, which operated out of a workshop at the Colt Firearms Company factory in Hartford, Connecticut. The company was developing an automatic distributor for sorting used type back into typecases, and asked Paige to combine his machine with theirs to produce a complete automatic typesetter. But on examining Farnham’s machine, Paige concluded that the two mechanisms were incompatible, and instead set about designing an entirely new machine, which he called the Paige Compositor.
Comprising some 18,000 intricately-machined parts, the Paige Compositor was a marvel of late 19th-Century engineering. Designed to exactly replicate the action of a human composer, it used a mechanical arm to lift pieces of type from a series of magazines and deposit them in a composing tray, allowing a typesetter to compose a line as fast as they could type on the integrated keyboard. Paige estimated that his invention could speed up the process of typesetting by up to three-fold, revolutionizing the publishing industry and making him and his colleagues very wealthy men. However, the complexity of the machine meant that it would take a great deal of time – and money – to perfect. Farnham thus began seeking investors to bankroll the machine’s development. One of the Company stockholders, Dwight Buell, thought he had the perfect man: his good friend Mark Twain.
While Twain may not have been intimately familiar with the other technologies he had backed over the years, he did know a thing or two about printing, having worked as a printer for much of his youth. Thus, when Buell informed him of Paige’s machine, Twain was initially skeptical, stating:
“I knew all about type-setting by practical experience, and held the settled and solidified opinion that a successful type-setting machine was an impossibility.”
Upon seeing an early prototype in action, however, Twain quickly changed his mind, declaring:
“[Its] performance did most thoroughly amaze me.”
Having recently started collecting large royalties from the publication of Tom Sawyer, in 1880 Twain purchased $5000 in Farnham stock, convinced that Paige’s machine “…would turn up trumps eventually.”
Unfortunately, Twain had not counted on one thing: James Paige’s compulsive perfectionism. An inveterate tinkerer, Paige spent years – and tens of thousands of his investors’ dollars – redesigning and rebuilding his machine in an obsessive quest to attain mechanical perfection. On several occasions he declared the design completely unworkable and started over from scratch, resulting in numerous interminable delays. Indeed, it was not until 1887 that he finally completed a working prototype and applied for a full patent. At 218 pages and containing 850 diagrams, Paige’s patent, nicknamed “The Whale”, is the longest ever filed in U.S. history, and took an astounding eight years for the Patent Office to fully review and approve. In that time, one of the examiners died and, we can’t make this stuff up, another two went insane and were committed to insane asylums. Whether these mental breakdowns were actually related to Paige’s invention is not recorded. And so fiendishly complicated was the machine that a scale working model – a standard requirement for patent applications in those days – was impractical to build for them, so a Patent Office examiner a month in Paige’s workshop evaluating his full-scale prototype. This lengthy development process resulted in Farnham missing several opportunities to exhibit the Paige Compositor, including an 1891 American Newspaper Publishers’ Association typesetting competition and the epoch-defining Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition of 1893.
Yet despite these delays, Twain, lush with cash from the 1884 publication of Huckleberry Finn, remained optimistic, and continued to fund Paige’s venture to the tune of $4000 per month (about $125,000 per month today). His faith appeared justified when, on January 5, 1889, he witnessed a demonstration of Paige’s perfected prototype, the construction of which had been moved to the Pratt and Whitney Company – later to become a leading manufacturer of aircraft engines. To Twain’s astonishment, the machine allowed a single operator to automatically set, justify, and assemble a page of type at a rate of up to 12,000 Ems per hour and redistribute used type back into the storage magazines, leading him to exclaim in excitement:
“We only need one more thing, a phonograph on the distributor to yell, “Where in Hell is the printer’s devil [apprentice] , I want more type!”… There is no machine that could pretend rivalry to it…. Here [is] a typesetter that does not get drunk, does not join the Printers’ Union [and] does not distribute a dirty case.”
Later that day, Twain wrote to friend in London that:
“…a death-warrant of all other type-setting machines in this world was signed at 12:20 this afternoon.”
Twain boasted to friends and family that the Paige Compositor would make him a millionaire, and that he would need several assistants just to count the money that would soon be rolling in. But Twain’s victory celebration proved premature, for in typical fashion Paige continued to obsessively tinker with the machine, further delaying its entry onto the market. Meanwhile, Twain’s massive investments in the machine – which had been drawn not only from his own royalties but his wife Olivia’s sizeable inheritance – was beginning to take its toll. In 1890 his publishing house collapsed, plunging the family into dire financial straits. Yet Twain still continued to diligently fund Paige’s machine, assuring Olivia that:
“…a foot farther into the ledge and we shall strike the vein of gold. When the machine is finished everything will be all right again.”
But still the delays dragged on, and Twain gradually lost his faith in the wonder machine. In desperate need of financial relief, in January 1890 he took his old friend John Jones to see the machine in the hopes of getting him to invest. To his dismay, Paige had completely disassembled the machine and spread it across the shop floor. Jones left unimpressed and never invested. At his wit’s end, Twain and his family left the United States for Europe, the author angrily declaring:
“I have shook the machine and never wish to see it or hear it mentioned again.”
But worse was yet to come, for in the meantime a competing machine had pulled ahead in the race: Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine. Born in 1854 in Hachtel, Kingdom of Württemberg, Mergenthaler apprenticed as a watchmaker before immigrating to Baltimore in 1872. He soon began working on his own typesetting machine, which he patented in 1884. In 1886, the first commercial Linotype machine was installed at the offices of the New York Tribune, where it was used to typeset the 500-page Tribune Book of Open-Air Sports. Though Paige and his backers were aware of these developments, they were unfazed. An inside source at the Tribune informed Twain that the Linotype was delicate and temperamental, and due to frequent breakdowns could barely match the 3,500 Ems per hour speed of a manual typesetter. The Paige typesetter, by contrast, was regularly achieving speeds of 5,000 Ems per hour. Confident in his machine’s superiority, in 1892 Paige arranged for the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association to conduct a private test of his Compositor at the Pratt & Whitney workshop. The results were stunning, with the machine achieving composing speeds two or three times that of its competitors. The ANPA committee wrote glowing reviews, and thousands of orders came flooding into Farnham’s offices for Paige Compositors.
This stunning success was enough to reignite Mark Twain’s interest in the machine, and in 1893 he and his fellow investors signed a contract with Chicago industrialist Towner K Webster to produce 3,000 units. The following year, James Scott, president of the ANPA and publisher of the Chicago Herald & Post, agreed to try out the Paige Compositor in his pressroom. At first the 60-day trial went well, an ecstatic Twain reporting that the machine:
“…delivered more corrected live matter to the imposing stone, ready for the forms, than any one of the thirty-two Linotypes in the same composing department….it seems to me that things couldn’t well be going better at Chicago.”
But it was not to last, for the machine soon began suffering from mangled type and other problems, causing significant printing delays. As the machine was too complex for the Herald’s in-house mechanic to understand – let alone repair – Paige had to be summoned personally to tend to every breakdown. While the Paige Compositor proved no less reliable than the first-generation Linotype and other competing typesetting machines, its great complexity and the extreme precision of its parts made it uneconomical to produce in commercial quantities. Meanwhile, Mergenthaler had produced a new, far more reliable version of the Linotype, causing sales to steadily pick up. By the end of 1892 there were more than 500 Linotypes in operation in more than 30 newspaper pressrooms across the country. By 1894, it was clear that Mergenthaler had won the race. Within a few months, orders for the Paige Compositor dwindled from 4,000 to zero, and shortly thereafter the investors dissolved the company. Paige’s dream was officially dead.
In all, Paige’s investors had poured nearly $2 million dollars into the venture, and all they had to show for it was six production machines built at an astronomical $15,000 apiece. Twain himself invested $180,000 – nearly $7 million in today’s money – and in 1894 was forced to declare bankruptcy. Though this declaration officially cleared him of all obligations, through book sales and speaking tours Twain was nonetheless able to repay all his creditors and regain a degree of financial stability. Still, he never fully forgave Paige, writing in his autobiography that:
“Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms; and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel-trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died.”
Tell us how you really feel, Mark…
As for Paige himself, he fared significantly worse. After losing his entire life’s savings in the Panic of 1893, he died penniless and alone in a Chicago poorhouse on December 1, 1917, his sole claim to fame being the man who helped bankrupt one of the most successful and respected authors in history.
But why did Mergenthaler’s Linotype, which at first appeared no more reliable than the Paige Compositor, win out in the end? In addition to having a temperamental, perfectionist inventor, the Paige Compositor suffered from another fundamental flaw: its translation of the typesetting process from man to machine was far too literal. By exactly replicating the motions of a human typesetter, Paige created a machine that was too complicated to be economically viable. The Linotype, by contrast, worked on a completely different and far more robust principle. Instead of setting actual type, the Linotype instead set small metal moulds known as matrices, which were stored in vertical magazines in the top of the machine. Every time the operator hit a key, the corresponding matrix would drop from the magazine into a composing tray. Once an entire line was composed, it would be transferred into the machine’s casting module, where the matrices were used to cast a solid line of type or slug from a lead-tin alloy. Multiple slugs could were stacked into a forme and loaded into the printing press, while the matrices were fed back into the Linotype and sorted back into their respective magazines via an elaborate conveyor system. Once a set of slugs had been used, they would be fed back into the machine, melted down, and the whole process would start over again. In addition to being simpler, more robust, and cheaper to manufacture than the Paige Compositor, the Linotype system neatly solved another fundamental problem with automatic typesetting: the sheer volume of type required. As certain letters are used repeatedly on any given page and a certain forme of type might be used for a long time before being broken up, an automatic typesetter would require an extraordinary volume of metal type in order to work at full capacity. But since the Linotype sets matrices instead of type, works one line at a time, and recycles the matrices after every line, the total number of matrices required is significantly reduced, helping to make the machine simpler and more compact.
For these reasons, it was the Linotype and not the Paige Compositor which went on to revolutionize the publishing industry. The machines were the workhorses of newspaper pressrooms around the world for over 100 years, with the last units not being retired until the early 1980s. Indeed, so important was Mergenthaler’s innovation that no less a figure than inventor Thomas Edison declared the Linotype the “eighth wonder of the world.”
As for the six Paige Compositors manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, four were scrapped following the dissolution of Paige’s company. The remaining two were purchased by the Mergenthaler company in 1898, with one being presented to Cornell University and the other was to Columbia University. The Columbia machine is believed to have been scrapped during World War II as part of a wartime scrap metal drive, while the Cornell machine was returned to Mergenthaler and later donated to the Mark Twain Home in Hartford, Connecticut, where it remains on display to this day – the last remnant of a curious and disastrous chapter in the great author’s life.
Yet despite nearly losing everything he had, Twain chose to take the whole debacle in stride, reflecting upon the affair in his inimitably pithy style:
“I learned two things from the experience: not to invest when you can’t afford to, and not to invest when you can.”
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
- Podcast Episode #296: Mark Twain and His Curious Aquarium
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Lundin, Leigh, Tom Sawyer and the Diabolus Ex Machina, Criminal Brief, May 22, 2022, https://criminalbrief.com/?p=16874
Lienhard, John, No.1372: The Paige Compositor, Engines of Our Ingenuity, University of Houston, https://web.archive.org/web/20000421014607/http://www.uh.edu/engines/epi1372.htm
Mark Twain, James W. Paige, and the Paige Typesetter, Twain Quotes, http://www.twainquotes.com/paige.html
The Paige Compositor, Circuitous Root, https://circuitousroot.com/artifice/letters/press/noncastcomp/paige/index.html
The Paige Compositor, Codex 99, http://www.codex99.com/typography/124.html
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