Ottmar Mergenthaler: 1854 – 1899

Ottmar Mergenthaler, the inventor of the Linotype machine, was born on May 11, 1854. While it may be difficult to appreciate in our era of digital innovation, Mergenthaler’s invention was a momentous achievement that transformed our industry 125 years ago.

Called the “eighth wonder of the world” by Thomas Edison, Mergenthaler’s machine automated and integrated the casting and assembly of type forms; the invention completed the advancement of printing from handcraft to industrial manufacturing.

In the early 19th century, industrial printing came into shape as iron replaced wood in press construction. Cylinders were developed and, with steam power, the rotary press was invented. Meanwhile, the 1800s saw papermaking industrialize and bookbinding convert from handiwork to mass production.

The industrial revolution increased the volume of printing and its output per hour. However, in contrast, there was one critical step that remained primitive, costly and in need of revolutionary change: typesetting.

For centuries, type composition methods remained static. Standing in front of the type case, the compositor manually picked up individually cast metal characters and placed them in sequence—including justification—onto an eight-inch composing stick. Manual typesetting required The New York Times, for example, to maintain a staff 100 compositors … to produce eight-page weekday editions and a twelve-pager on Sundays!

The search to replace the old process—which remained unchanged since Gutenberg’s time—spanned a century and went through more than 100 unsuccessful inventions. As one author wrote, “The story of the many inventors who failed, died broke or took to drink … only serves to dramatize this persistent urge of the human spirit” to leap over an important technological hurdle.

With expectations of a solution on the horizon, investors put up an estimated $10 million between 1865 and 1885 for various schemes. Among them was Mark Twain who sank $190,000 ($7 million in today’s money) into a failed contraption that had 18,000 moving parts.

It took the genius, clarity of vision and persistence of a young German emigrant to America to solve the riddle of mechanical typesetting. Arriving in Baltimore at the age of 18, Ottmar Mergenthaler was looking for an opportunity to pursue his interest in engineering.

In 1876, the young Mergenthaler—who was trained as a watchmaker— was asked to review the apparatus of another inventor. He said, “Even though I know almost nothing about printing, I have little faith that this is the machine to revolutionize an industry.” And with that, he embarked upon the project of his life. After ten years of work and at age 32, Mergenthaler demonstrated his machine publicly for the first time in the offices of The New York Tribune on July 3, 1886.

With his unique arrangement of keyboard, gears, wheels, belts, pulleys, tubes, cables, hoses, trays etc., Mergenthaler integrated a mind-boggling array of functions. At the core of his invention were: 1.) the casting of individual type forms from hot metal; 2.) the assembly of the characters into lines-of-type and; 3.) everything was done by a single operator. You can watch a Model 8 Linotype machine in action by visiting this YouTube link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nf0hDWOrnWA

By 1895, there were 3,000 machines in use by publishers and printers worldwide. The fast, low cost typesetting led to an expansion of the printed word. In the US, newspapers increased pages, magazines grew in size and frequency, books were printed in greater quantities, libraries multiplied and the illiteracy rate was reduced.

Predictably, Mergenthaler—a technician, not a moneyman—was treated badly by the “publishers syndicate” that financed the development of the Linotype. Expecting rapid and large returns, they forced Ottmar to bring his invention to market before it was ready and manipulated the patent system for their own gain.

Along with other inventors of his generation, Ottmar Mergenthaler exhibited little interest in riches or personal glory. After twenty years of work and following a serious illness, he and his family took their first vacation. Traveling to his hometown in Wurttemberg, Ottmar was greeted with a hero’s welcome. Upon their return to America, however, Ottmar Mergenthaler was diagnosed with TB and, at the age of 45, he died on October 28, 1899.

Typography & the content of the message

When I was 19-years-old, I decided I wanted to be a graphic artist. It was actually during a drawing class that I became convinced that I needed to be a visual artist. I suppose I could have pursued fine art, but ultimately I was compelled by one thing: typography. Where do these graphic forms come from? Why do we use these iconographic images to communicate? How can typography (and other images) be used best to express the content of the message? These were and are still the most important questions of graphic design!

This brings me to the topic of my post. I just watched the documentary film, Helvetica directed by Gary Hustwit. As described on the film website, it is “a feature-length independent film about typography, graphic design and global visual culture.” Although the movie was made on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the modern and ubiquitous typeface family, it is something of a primer for all of us: it helps to connect the desktop, Internet and social media generations with the bigger picture of visual communications history and theory.

Helvetica is indeed everywhere and the movie shows this with its rich visuals of daily life in countries around the world. But the film is very important for its review of the changes in the twentieth century that first led to the creation of Helvetica as an international standard, later saw a movement against it and now, in the age of online communications, has seen something of a renaissance. Perhaps the movie itself is part of the renewed appreciation in the twenty-first century of this breakthrough font.

Helvetica is the quintessential modern, sans serif typeface and it is connected with the strivings of the design community in the 1950s for something new and global in character. As designer Massimo Vignelli explains, “When Helvetica came about we were all ready for it. It just had all the right connotations that we were looking for. For anything that had to spell out loud and clear: Modern.”

Helvetica was developed jointly by Swiss type designers Eduard Hoffman and Max Miedinger at the Haas Type Foundry in Münchenstein, Switzerland in 1957. It was originally called Die Neue Haas Grotesk. Since Haas was owned by Linotype and subject to the marketing interests of the large corporation, the name was later changed to Helvetica. In order to sell the font particularly in America, Hoffman and Miedinger agreed to change the name to an alteration of the Latin word for Switzerland (Helvetia), i.e. Helvetica is literally: The Swiss Typeface. The film includes an interview with Alfred Hoffman, son of Eduard, reviewing the specification sheets and hand written notations from the type design process. Hoffman, although he has gotten less credit for Helvetica than his partner, is revealed in the film as having had a clarity of vision with regard to the appearance and aesthetics of the form.

Several of those interviewed explain that the runaway attraction of Helvetica for the graphic design community, especially for corporate identity in the 1960s, was its simplicity and neutrality. Helvetica is the cameleon of graphic communications; it can be used to embody the identity of almost any concept or organization. It can also be equally used to communicate simple public information and is very often used in directional signage. Soon almost everyone was using Helvetica to transform their look and cast away the remnants of the premodern world. The film then illustrates the impact of the font on US and European corporations; the number of companies that adopted it appears substantial and shocking even for someone like myself who pays attention to such matters.

But, as the movie also clearly shows, Helvetica—and the rules of typography as they had come to be understood—eventually came under attack by notions of postmodernism. This took the form of a rejection of the structure, clarity and rules that were the bedrock of the design of Helvetica. The critics said that typography itself does indeed need to convey something more than the meaning of the words they express; some even said that the type needs to have its own message and the meaning of the words are of little consequence. In the backlash, Helvetica was said to have become identified with safety, conformism and predictability in design. Helvetica and its sense of structure was the dull and conservative background noise that had to be displaced by more expressive forms.

The counter-culture began in the 1970s as the postmodernists circumvented what they perceived as the boredom of Helvetica with things like illustrated typography. Veering in the direction of fine art, type began to take on many different chaotic forms. Experimental works that pushed the limits of legibility were the rage. Postmodernist design was also enabled by the technological revolution of the personal computer, where the structured principles of type design were violated by anyone who felt like it. With that went the business of typography; Adobe, Apple and Microsoft became the bearers of the intellectual property of generations of type designers going back to Gutenberg.

The theory of the postmodernists, or lack thereof, is expressed most clearly in the film by David Carson whose work became popular in the 1980s and world-renowned in the 1990s. Known as the father of “grunge design” Carson says, “I have no formal training in the field. In my case, I never learned all the things I wasn’t supposed to do. I was doing the things that made sense to me. I was just experimenting … I didn’t understand why people were getting so upset … only much later did I learn what the terms ‘modernism’ and this and that.” While the aestheticism Carson represents may be good at conveying visual atmospherics, it is not effective for typographic communications; it is all about impact through anticommunication (if that is even a word).

Fortunately, and I think naturally, the deconstructionist approach could not predominate. With the development of the online publishing and the pixel grid of the computer display, typography has moved back more closely to rationality. While it is certainly possible to find poor typography on the web, there is an awareness and sensitivity among a growing group of us about what is good, effective and appropriate use of type. As is pointed out at the end of the film, social networks are now playing a role in the development of new and innovative approaches to typography. The growth of the networked mobile device will certainly also contribute to this evolution.

I am the last to argue that the history of typography ends with Helvetica. However, it appears that things went off-the-rails for a period and we are now somewhere between 1957 and the next great step in the evolution of typography beyond Helvetica. Perhaps we will see something that dovetails with tiny URLs, texting and 140 character limits.

Johannes Gutenberg: c. 1398 – 1468


Bust of Johannes Gutenberg outside the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany

The known details of Johannes Gutenberg’s life are few and far between. With documentary evidence quite meager after 600 years, there are many gaps in his biography. Due to the lack of information, a mythology has been built up about Gutenberg that (1) his ideas about printing came to him “like a ray of light,” (2) that he was a failed businessman and (3) he died in poverty. None of this is true.

What is known is that Gutenberg left Mainz in 1430 due to political conflicts between the patricians and the guilds. Gutenburg, himself a patrician with an inclination toward the guild members, was owed considerable sums by the local government. It is likely that Gutenberg began his project in 1439 while living in Strasbourg. Far from it coming to him in an instant, Gutenberg worked on what he called his “secret enterprise” for some ten years before it was complete and ready for commercial production. The processes involved in the technique were complex and expensive and would have required numerous approaches and attempts. Among them were:
1.) Typeface design
2.) Engraving of patrices
3.) Manufacture of matrices
4.) Creation of the manual metal typecaster
5.) Composition of metal alloys
6.) Ink formulation
7.) Experiments with paper and parchment
8.) The construction of the wooden press machinery

By far the most significant of these, was (4) the invention of the handheld mold for casting metal type. While I was at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany in June 2008, I asked if any of the original casting devices were existent and was told that none had been preserved; the ones that were in the museum were recreations from information available about how they were constructed. This information did not include any drawings or schematics. Below is a video of a demonstration given by the museum on Gutenberg’s invention.

It is believed that Gutenberg returned to Mainz in 1448 and it was around this time that the process was finalized and live projects could be produced with his invention. In 1449-50, Gutenberg secured an investment from Johannes Fust and the two became partners, opening the first commercial printing establishment in the world. A rented facility was located, new presses were built, a staff was hired and trained, materials were procured and stored for the purpose of producing the 42-line Bibles that are well-known.

In 1455, there was a business dispute between the two men and Fust sued Gutenberg in court on charges of refusal to pay interest on his loan and embezzlement. In a complex ruling, the court issued an order for Gutenberg to pay a portion of what Fust demanded and the two parted company. The legal dispute with Fust certainly set Gutenberg back as he was unable to pay immediately. Fust kept the Bible inventory, opened up his own printing facility and took the most skilled employee of the firm (Peter Schöffer) with him. However, Gutenberg was not ruined and he continued to work energetically on the development of his technique … he just had a competitor down the road, another first in the industry.

It is believed that Gutenberg continued to produce Bibles and other products such as calendars and letters of indulgence. In 1465, the archbishop of Mainz, Adolf von Nassau, appointed Gutenberg as “gentleman of the court” in recognition for his achievements which he enjoyed until his death in 1468. His invention spread rapidly throughout Europe, led to an tremendous expansion of literacy and is considered a key element in the Renaissance.