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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Create & Innovate Plus Home Made Gifts & Games

article number 504
article date 11-19-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our News Can Be Typeset Quickly, Baltimore’s Ottmar Mergenthaler Invents the Linotype, 1885
by Roger Burlingame
   

From the 1940 book, Engines of Democracy.

§ 1

AS THE penny press began in the Cities; as the railroad and telegraph aided the news, as news-gathering associations multiplied, the cheap paper vogue became one of the factors of social democracy. At this point another figure crept into the picture.

Benjamin Franklin discovered the astonishing economic possibility that a newspaper might be supported by its advertising. The possibility was not realized in his time and was not fully developed even by the first penny papers.

As the circulation of the cheap press grew, however, and as newspaper publishers became aware of the fortunes to be made from the adequate promotion of advertising, papers changed character somewhat. In the free-for-all days, just before the twilight of individualism, the text of a proper newspaper presented a striking contrast to its advertising columns.

Not only did the most dignified papers print the scurrilous attacks of merchants and manufacturers upon their rivals, but they had no scruples about printing the most blatant announcements of quack doctors and useless or dangerous medicines claiming cures for all known distempers.

Furthermore, at the apex of Victorian propriety, when the mention of any portion of female anatomy between the chin and the ankle in news or editorial columns would have been highly indecorous; when strenuous campaigns were carried on by the editors against the mildest forms of vice and incontinence; when it was believed by editors and readers alike that the scantiest understanding by children of the mechanics of their conception or parturition would thoroughly destroy them―the advertising columns ran riot with crude, pornographic discussion of social diseases, sexual impotence, birth control, sex “hygiene” and all the detailed steps which must be taken by the pimply adolescent to make him a Don Juan of devastating proportions.

The censorship of these items was exceedingly difficult in an age of free competition; their control was an evidence of the collective impulse. It came at last, and the daily press suffered financially.

The “art” of advertising through all this period advanced little. Advertisements were thrown and crowded together, the desideratum being as many words as possible in the smallest space, so that the eyes of school children were dimmed in the effort to discover their origin in 6-point type and older readers simply gave up trying to read the more respectable announcements.

When censorship came, there was an interval when newspaper publishers were hard put to it to find decent advertising to keep up their incomes. Then, with prosperity, with large-scale production, advertising, too, began on a larger scale.

At once newspaper publishers were in difficulties. To carry more advertising the papers must be enlarged. Advertisers were already aware that their announcements must run adjacent to the text of the paper to carry the full appeal. The publishers knew that they must preserve a proper balance of news and advertising to keep their circulation.

The material for news text, or what are now called “features,” was abundant. But beyond a certain point, display advertising would no longer be able to carry news or editorial matter.

The addition beyond this point of a page containing, let us say, a three-to-one or even a two-to-one proportion of news to advertising would impose a cost too great to be met by the advertiser.

This was true simply because the cost of composition of the text was so high compared with all the other costs of the newspaper.

Given ingenious sticks and chases, every simplification of composing-room equipment; given a fantastic speed of fingers, arms and eyes, it was still necessary for the compositor to pick his type from a case and insert it between his leads, to juggle his quads and spaces until the line was justified.

When the printing was done or the plate made, he had to pull out the type again and put it back in the compartments from which it came.

In the days of fast printing under this system, the hand of a good compositor moved faster than the eye of a layman could follow, yet it was not fast enough to get a large newspaper on the street in time to satisfy a public voracious for news except at a cost which would prohibit the sale of that paper at a price the public was willing to pay. And advertising merely completed the vicious circle.

The complementary arts, therefore, of modern advertising and modern journalism must wait hand-in-hand for the new technician. Advertising, on the whole, fared better. It had other mediums than newsprint.

   

§ 2

The effort to compose type by machine dates far back in the nineteenth century. The most ingenious devices came, at one point or another, to a standstill, leaving the greatest problems unsolved, and when such machines were put into operation it was found that they did a job so little better than the hand compositor that they were hardly worth their great cost.

Yet there was a peculiar variety of inventive mind which kept men at the tormenting puzzle for its own sake—as if, indeed, they could not help it; it was a vice, an addiction, a disease which sent many a thinker to the asylum.

Each of them contributed a little; advanced the process a short step so that when collateral technics caught up, the pieces of the puzzle fell so easily into place that untutored men wondered at the long delay.

As in so many inventions, the longest step must be a mental catharsis: an elimination which must totally divorce the mechanical motions from those of the human hand.

The problems, as men familiar with printing first saw them, were these. First, a piece of type must be picked from a compartment in a case. Next, it must be carried to the chase or frame from which the impression was to be made and dropped between leads at the right-hand end of a line.

Then the machine must repeat these complex motions until a second single type be inserted next the first and so on until a full line had run from right to left—a line of characters and spaces. These steps look difficult enough for an inanimate mechanism but they are nothing to what follows.

When the line is complete, it may come to an end in the middle of a word—at the wrong point for a hyphen or leaving no room for a hyphen. The lay reader who does not quite grasp this enigma as we explain it may explain it to himself by trying to typewrite a dozen lines making them all precisely the same length. If he succeeds, his page will contain astonishing violations of orthodox word presentation.

The printer solves the puzzle by juggling his spaces; by taking out thick ones and substituting thin ones until the line of type just fills the space and ends at an orthodox point in the final word.

However facile practice may make the compositor so that at last he may compose with his thoughts wandering away to wife and babies and budgets, it is nevertheless skilled labor actuated by a high department of the brain; a job far too shaded and delicate to entrust to an inanimate repetitive machine.

The job is called, in printers’ jargon, “justification.” The next job for the compositor is what is known as “distribution”—putting the tiny types back to bed after they have done their work, each type in its separate room.

To conjure before the mind’s eye a machine with fingers which will pick each fragment of metal from the chase, and then go searching about through the types’ apartment house till it finds the proper room and there release its hold, is a feat which must be reserved for inventors running a high temperature or at least acutely alcoholized. Is it surprising that the doors of the lunatics’ haven so often opened for these tired print-thinkers?

So the catharsis must come and thought must begin anew in a clean mind—a mind that must have lapsed back to Gutenberg and the very bottom origins of printing.

As long as minds remained fastened on foundry type, all experiments must end in some kind of failure: failure of mechanics, failure of speed or economic collapse. It is odd, looking at it from our present knowledge, how long inventive minds clung to these bits of metal in their cases.

Yet the first experiment of which we have adequate record was warm to the final answer. Doctor William Church of Boston made, in 1822, an adjunct to a typecasting machine which caused the type after they had been cast and segregated in reservoirs to drop, at the bidding of the operator who worked a keyboard, into the case at the proper point. Justifying was then done by hand.

The type were never distributed after use. They were re-melted, and by re-melting Doctor Church went a long way in his catharsis. Had he dropped one step in his setting process—the reservoirs—he would have gone farther, leaving only justification to torment the mind.

From this point, in England, France and America we see men racking their brains and, while no machine appeared that could do the whole job, contributions were made which became useful once the catharsis was complete.

It is remarkable that before the invention of the typewriter, keyboards were in operation which released a single type from its particular reservoir and allowed that type to move through grooves to the exact spot over the chase from which it might drop into place.

And one inventor even reversed this process and by pressing keys caused the types to return from chase to case—a process scarcely more rapid than hand distribution, as the operator must read the type as he went along.

In these keyboard inventions, it is enlightening to observe that while the typewriter had not been invented the piano had, and the keyboards of this period were all black-and-white reproductions of the index of the pianoforte.

In Europe several experimenters discovered that by putting certain arrangements of nicks in foundry type, distribution could be achieved by mechanical principles somewhat analagous to those by which one key and only one will open a lock. Nicked type sliding along rods or wires corresponding to the nicks will stop sliding, let us say, when a certain rod comes to an end and will drop at that point.

E. R. Gaudens in England and Christian Sorenson in Sweden and Joseph Thome in America all took out patents on such mechanisms. We know little about these inventors and it would scarcely be advisable to investigate their many headaches too closely.

It will be well, however, to remember the nicks in the type and it may explain some of what follows if we bear in mind that the greatest concentration on this problem was in America, not in Europe.

   

Why, we wonder? Was it the old “Yankee ingenuity” born in the days of whittling in the long winters on the New England farm, that kept these people at the puzzle merely because it was a puzzle? Or was it the impulse of speed already strong in the forties and fifties? Or was it the terrific urge toward articulation so characteristic of our later society?

Perhaps the overcurious student may find an answer in the lives of men like Mitchell, Alden, Felt, Westcott, Kasterbein, Paige, Richards, Burr, Thorne and MacMillan, who struggled with the problems after 1840. None solved them all.

But there was one genius who cannot be passed over in any such summary fashion by any history of invention, social or otherwise. His whole performance was a tragedy. It dissipated many fortunes. Little enough of it has proved useful in the modern setting of type.

Yet it is scarcely possible to believe that so prodigious a revelation of the high potentials of the human mind can have contributed nothing to mechanical progress as a whole. And his very mistakes, his whole colossal mistake, indeed, may have brought the turning point on this particular inventional road.

§ 3

James W. Paige came from Rochester in western New York, where much of the Yankee tradition had removed as industry grew. Paige had two attributes of an inventor to a high degree: a scientific mind and an inexhaustible patience.

His tragedy lay in the fact that there seems to have been something approaching a vacuum in the economic department of his mind. Usually inventors with this failing are compensated by stern companions—backers like Jim Densmore, who have cool business sense and more understanding of machine practice than machine theory.

Paige’s backers were visionaries like Mark Twain, who always had a yen for any mechanical device which might impinge upon his creative product, and others who were subject to pure mechanical hypnosis.

Thus a million and a half dollars went into the production of a couple of the most beautiful museum pieces in the entire history of mechanical invention.

Paige took the whole vast problem of setting, justifying and distributing foundry type and solved it without catharsis. The solution worked (in a museum environment) and Paige miraculously survived, which cannot be said of some of his associates. Yet when all was said and done, it must be described, at last, as the most expensive toy ever built.

Perhaps we may be excused from a detailed description of the machine by the statement that two of the attorneys who tried to explain it for the Patent Office records ended their lives in asylums. A few statistics, however, will suggest its complexity.

The invention was conceived in 1872; the first complete machine appeared in 1892. Before the first machine was completed the promoters had spent $1,300,000, and it has been stated that “probably another million was expended before the end came.”*

* Mark Twain invested heavily in this enterprise.

The first patent application contained 204 sheets of drawings presenting 1000 separate views. Later applications contained 275 drawings, 123 specifications, 613 claims. Patents were pending eight years, during which one death and the two cases of insanity occurred among the examiners.

During this time Paige’s work was incessant, as it was, indeed, through the whole twenty years of perfection. The keyboard alone took ten years of constant study. The machine when complete contained 18,000 separate parts, 800 shaft bearings and weighed more than three tons. It required only a twelfth of a horsepower to run it.

   
J. W. Paige Machine for Distributing, Setting, and Justifying Type. Patent Office drawing. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

The keyboard was so managed that whole words could be set at once—the operator using all his fingers. At the end of each line the machine managed the justification mathematically while the compositor went right on composing the next line.

A calculating machine did the job of justification by measuring the space occupied by each word as it was set and dividing the empty part of the line into the right number of spaces to be inserted when the time came. This principle reappeared, later, in modified form in the type-casting monotype of Tolbert Lanston.

In the Paige machine, separate mechanisms tested the accuracy of the setting, threw out defective type or those which were turned or inverted. Distribution was managed by the nicked-type system. “Automatic stops locked every working part of the machine whenever its mechanism became deranged.”

Here, however, came the rub—or one of the rubs. The incredible Mr. Paige must have believed, while he was inventing, that he or some one like him would operate the machine and care for it while it was working. That there was no one like Mr. Paige in the world (and perhaps never has been or will be) became evident during the brief commercial operation of the giant compositor.

The mechanism became “deranged” and only the inventor or such of his associates who had retained their sanity could locate the derangement. Repairs were expensive, delays inevitable.

But more important than all (and Mr. Paige or Mr. Clemens should have considered this), there was no possibility of putting such a machine into mass or even large-scale production. To accomplish it some 18,000 other machines would have to be invented, each capable of turning out its own particular part in quantity.

Having done this, the manufacturer would then have to assemble the 18,000 parts with reasonable rapidity and it would take an even greater mind than Mr. Paige’s—if not a group of minds working a lifetime apiece—to put such assembly on anything like a profitable basis. The nineties were not ready for any like performance.

Only two machines were made, therefore, and both soon found their way to museums. It is a tragic fact that as inventive genius moves too far without economic control, there comes a point where the descent is rapid from the sublime to the ridiculous and we are possessed by a horrid fear that an examination of the Paige machines may have given the initial impetus to the long and brilliant career of Mr. Rube Goldberg.

§ 4

We must come now to the catharsis. It was drastic and terrible and entailed great suffering to almost every one concerned. After it, starting from scratch, came one of the most important inventions in the history of the world—an invention probably second only in its sphere to the invention of movable types.

A German immigrant to the United States, a brilliant mechanic, a patient experimenter and above all an artisan of unimpeachable integrity is usually given full credit.

Readers of Ottmar Mergenthaler’s privately printed autobiography may shed tears over his bitterness against the makers and users of his machine and grow bitter themselves at what they think is his inadequate compensation. It would be wise, however, to give heed to a few other historical and economic factors.

Many tears are wasted over the poor inventors. What happens to their creations? Bought at hard bargains by ruthless promoters, they are launched into mass manufacture by greedy capitalists, patents are wangled, pooled, twisted until at last the creator starves in a garret, alone and friendless, surrounded by replicas of his brain-child.

So, according to legend, they perished by the thousand, Goodyear within smell of his rubber, Hargreaves within sound of his jenny, Buick looking through a frosted window and seeing his name on every fifth or tenth (or whatever it was) car that passed below.

For every inventor that dies in a garret, there is at least one who has received far more than he deserved; and every one who dies wealthy has at least a half-dozen collaborators who received inadequate compensation, and for almost every inventor to whom full credit is given there are a dozen or more bitter claimants and most, if not all, of them are right.

   
Mergenthaler’s first direct casting band machine of 1884. Prom Biography of Ottmar Mergenthaler. Courtesy of Engineering Societies Library.

As we approach, therefore, the dramatic story of Ottmar Mergenthaler’s spectacular achievement, we must be careful never to let him occupy the center of the stage for too long at a time or to divert attention from the other actors in the piece, at least one of whom must be called great.

James O. Clephane appeared in a significant role in the story of the typewriter. He was a stenographer. He was probably the stenographer "par excellence" in the history of the United States.

We may look down upon stenography today—the machine, perhaps, has done that for us—but Clephane took it seriously enough. His job was exigent; he recorded the debates of the Senate and tried to get them into a printed record as fast as a senator can talk.

Clephane, hammering at the Sholes-Glidden-Densmore writing machines, was intent upon this problem. He was constantly stretching out his antenna for new ideas. It is not surprising that such a man should provide a center for gadget-fanciers. It is more so that this center, once established, became such a magnet for investors.

Perhaps it was the great idea which drew the support. There was much, to be sure, in the persuasive personality of Clephane—a personality to which Mr. Dale Carnegie might well point. But all the subterfuges practiced today in the winning of friends and the influencing of people would have availed Clephane little without his dynamic, irrepressible faith.

He had a kind of Napoleonic power that seemed to go with his little stature. Men flocked about him and he led them forward toward the avatar. If any faltered, Clephane would kick him back on his feet. He was harsh, merciless, dominant when the idea was before him.

One of the gadget men was Charles Moore of West Virginia, inventor of a printing telegraph. Clephane started him working on a machine that would print on a strip of paper in lithographic ink. The strip would then be made into justified lines with scissors and the stone which took the ink would be used for making replica impressions.

It seems a silly, time-wasting performance but it was a step. Clephane, working from the typewriter, was not encumbered by foundry type.

Moore’s machine did not work. Moore protested that he was not a good enough mechanic. Clephane answered that they would find a good mechanic.

By this time Clephane had influenced people to the extent of some $1500 and a group of enthusiasts had formed the Typographic Company—an institution with vague technical purposes but a very definite social purpose: the quick translation of spoken words into print. So he set out again to find the best mechanic he could lay his hands on.

In Washington, in ‘76, there existed one of those shops which must have been both a haven and a heartbreak house for many inventors. Besides making models for hopeful mechanical creators, August Hahl, the proprietor, did a sound business in electrical instruments for the Government, which paid, if not better than the inventors, at least more regularly.

It was lucky that Clephane picked Hahl’s shop, for working in it was Hahl’s cousin, the serious, deep-thinking, steady-handed German boy Mergenthaler, a genius of his own kind. The impact between these two giants is echoed in every click of every Linotype* in the world today.

* The name is a trade-mark and is here capitalized for this reason, though it has crept into the language at last with a lower-case initial.

They were a long way from the Linotype as they stood in Hahl’s shop inspecting Moore’s absurd machine. Mergenthaler happily knew nothing whatever about printing and it was this ignorance which administered the first cathartic.

“I know nothing about printing,” he said, “but I can make a machine that will work for your purpose.” He made it and was somewhat bored as he watched it work and saw how wrong the purpose was. He continued to be bored until Clephane came back with another idea.

Then, slowly, he took fire and the flame which consumed him gave mechanical composition to the world. It must be remembered, however, that Clephane had supplied the spark and that Clephane, later, did much to fan the flame.

“It is no good, it is no good, it is no good,” repeated Mergenthaler to Clephane’s spark when Clephane first struck it. Clephane insisted and Mergenthaler, still in profound boredom, made the machine.

The idea was to impress letters on papier-mâché until a mold or matrix was produced into which molten type metal would be poured. There is no record that the serious German laughed when the metal ate into the matrix and became inextricable from it. But he did go home and forget.

He did not forget for long. He could not. The type metal had eaten into his soul. The scar itched. Night after night he would start awake and before his eyes the vague wraith of a machine would form, come true an instant and fade again.

   
First machine with independent or free mats of 1885. Courtesy of Engineering Societies Library.

Soon he was studying printing in his spare time. Printing, he found, contained one too many operations. The fault went back to Gutenberg. In the machine age, movable types must be abandoned.

Yet something must be movable, interchangeable. You would not propose, Ottmar, to carve your sentences on wood blocks in this late machine age? His mind jumped back, now, to Clephane’s spark.

Clephane had punched molds in papier-mâché. How about punching them in metal? Why not make a mold for each letter and then assemble these molds into a line and cast from them a line of type at a time, a line of immovable type?

Movable molds, immovable type. It was a long thought and its pursuit took time.

It was eight years after their first meeting that Mergenthaler showed Clephane his “bar indenting” machine, now known as “Mergenthaler, 1884.” It contained a series of bars on each of which was the whole alphabet in mold or female-matrix form.

A keyboard shifted each bar up or down bringing the desired letter opposite a casting box. When all the bars were in position they together presented a line of matrices. It could be justified by slipping thin space bars between the type bars.

The melted metal, forced into the box and cooled would receive the impression of a line of type.*

* We have omitted unimportant intervening experiments. One bar-indenting machine, for instance, still worked with male matrices and a papier-mâché mold.

Mergenthaler was a perfectionist. Having shown his machine to Clephane he instantly lost interest in it.

By the time Clephane and his company were ready to put it on the market Mergenthaler had a new model. On it he abandoned the bars, using instead the familiar brass circulating matrix that is used today. The briefest description of this machine shows how it combines the devices of many inventors with the final triumphant device of casting type in the machine, a line at a time.

The brass matrices are assembled in a magazine divided into compartments, one for each letter or character. As a key on the keyboard is pressed, the matrix slides out of its proper compartment and takes its place in line. As the space key is struck, a space-band slips between two of the matrices, its end protruding.

The spacebands are wedge-shaped. The composition of matrices stops just before the end of the line; the forcing down of the spacebands tightens the line, justifying it with a single motion of a lever.

From the complete, justified line of matrices, a line of type is cast by blowing molten metal against it. The matrices are then lifted, the spacebands removed by a simple mechanical motion and the matrices slide along rods to which their peculiar nicks adapt them until, as the rods give out, they drop back into the magazines from which they started.

Here is almost exactly the nicked-type idea of Gaudens but carried out not with difficult, tiny, fragile type but with large, solid brass matrices or molds.*

* Experts will shudder at our use of this word which has another meaning in Linotype jargon. We are not, however, writing for experts.

It would be impossible to print from a line of type justified in this way. But it is possible and easy to cast a line of type from matrices so justified.

On a famous July 3 in 1886, Mergenthaler demonstrated his machine in the composing room of ’The New York Tribune,’ whose owner, Whitelaw Reid, in a sudden brainstorm blurted out the immortal name “Linotype!” as he watched.

   
Ottmar Mergenthaler demonstrating the first commercially successful linotype for Whitelaw Reid, 1886. From a drawing by J. Coggeshall Wilson.

By this time, Clephane had assembled a formidable group of capitalists—several of them newspaper men—who consolidated all earlier interests and formed a syndicate. Out of it grew the Mergenthaler Linotype Company.

Mergenthaler, at this point, seems to have become cantankerous. The difficulty began with a conflict between his stubborn perfectionism and the desire of the promoters and capitalists to go into production as quickly as possible.

Mergenthaler was right but the demand could not be halted. As soon as it was seen the Linotype was wanted.

Mergenthaler could see always a jump ahead of the promoters and knew that, with the improvements that were inevitable, this year’s machine would next year be obsolete.

The business men won, Mergenthaler sold out in 1888, and for years newspapers limped along with inadequate and prejudicial machines.

We have then the curious spectacle of the Mergenthaler company operating in production, while the inventor whose name it bore retired into his private machine shop where, for the rest of his life, he continued quite independently to make improvements on the Linotype!

He sold his patents to the company and lived the kind of life he had chosen until, in 1899, he died with more than fifty patents to his credit. His last five years were marred by a terrific struggle with tuberculosis, and this may have helped embitter the autobiography he never finished.

The company went on. It encountered a multitude of troubles due largely to lags in the collateral technic.

The making of cheap durable matrices was impossible until fine small machine tools for punch-making were evolved and steel-hardening fully developed.

The Linotype helped this evolution and the progress made under the direction of Philip Tell Dodge was a tribute to his mechanical genius and his organizing power.

It is not our custom to throw roses to commercial enterprises, but it must be conceded that the company which bears Mergenthaler’s name is today one of the most remarkable in existence.

The spread of its machines over the entire world has posed peculiar problems of language requiring the services of advanced scholars. The company has retained them and matrices are now made in more than seventy languages, including Burmese, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Sanskrit and Hindi.

To these in the past decade has been added the difficult Devangari alphabet of India, so that reading is now accessible in quantity to more than 300 million people handicapped before by the difficulty of hand-setting their lingo.

This only suggests the reach of an enterprise whose history is inextricable from the world progress of journalism.

   

§ 5

That newspapers are not the sole product of printing and therefore are not the only users of mechanical typesetting is obvious. It was less obvious forty years ago and for some time after the daily press had satisfied its mania for speed by installing Linotypes, book type was still set by hand.

There was a difference in appearance between a page printed from individual type and one printed from line slugs. (This has been overcome.) The difference was observed by readers who paid high prices for their books and publishers would not install the machines.

In answer to this difficulty, there came another type of machine designed not to set foundry type but to cast individual type and set them in line. This was a more remarkable achievement than Mergenthaler’s, mechanically considered—especially when it arrived at the justification stage.

The Monotype of Tolbert Lanston, however, is a refinement rather than a basic revolutionary invention. It is still abundantly in use for book printing, particularly in England.

The other machines have dropped largely out of competition. What the future holds for the composing-machine industry is somewhat dubious. It is possible that we shall depart entirely from the composition of type, mechanically or otherwise. There are great economies in photo-offset printing.

The new journalism based on machine composition marched toward good and ill in the twentieth century. With virtually unlimited space at their disposal, advertisers rushed into the daily press.

To keep its advertisers, a paper must keep its circulation. To increase advertising space, a paper must increase its news and editorial content. Advertising depended on sales.

Sales competition was violent; occasionally it came close to war. In Chicago, competition between two newspapers took physical form, men were shot, trucks destroyed, reporters waylaid in the effort to “scoop” the news and be first on the street. The long guerrilla wars of Chicago gangs are said to have had their inception in a newspaper struggle.

In other places rivalry was more orderly and the press grew with dignity in New York, Boston, Springfield, Baltimore, Louisville, Kansas City and other centers where able publishers and editors built monuments to the tradition of clean and truthful journalism.

Side by side with this movement, grew the empire of Hearst. The so-called "yellow journals," under cover of protecting and magnifying the power of “the people,” developed a true cynicism of exploitation on a scale never equalled in history.

Power became the sole standard and in the struggle toward that ideal brilliant men capable of greatness became sinners against the light. The yellow press brought on a war in 1898. The infection spread to England and an empire of the press grew into being there which endured beyond its waning in America.

The press wars marked a late flare-up of individualism in America. But levelling influences were at work almost from the moment that machine composition started the race for power.

That great collective agency, The Associated Press, and its growing competitor, United Press, created more and more dependence as the text of the news enlarged. With multiplied, consolidated and efficient communication, scooping effort became wasteful in the city rooms, reporters listened more and more to the telephones, consulted police blotters and shared information.

As the text spread beyond news and editorial matter and was forced by advertisers into features—departments, “columns,” fiction, comics, women’s pages and a quantity of other print which served little other purpose than to increase size and offer new space for display announcements—syndicates took charge and put these matters on a mass production and universal distribution basis.

   

Advertising enlarged to a point where middlemen became essential and the agencies, serving a quantity of clients, found it desirable to introduce collective control. In the general interest, scurrilous attacks, false statements (in the literal sense) and offensive advertisements must be suppressed.

Associations of advertisers came into being for this purpose and new codes of “ethics” were drawn up by means of which falsehood, vulgarity, quackery, obscenity and offenses against taste were so refined and subtilized as to appear true, decorous and decent.

In this way “art” came into advertising and as the public became educated to the new forms they became more effective than the old and businesses far larger than the quack-medicine industries were nourished by fears of offensive breathing and perspiring, decaying teeth and ring-wormed feet.

On the whole, this condition, balanced by increased frankness in other directions, was probably an improvement.

But the economic forces of the collective phase were also at work upon the newspapers. The emperors of the press followed the amalgamation trend. Hearst abolished local editorial policies and diverse politics along the string of his papers that stretched at last from coast to coast. Munsey, Howard, Curtis and the others did the same.

The effect was a standardization of thought in tune with mass production of commodities. With a few exceptions, the newspapers became a mere utility, a condition which extended at last into such a plateau of dullness that a new effort became necessary especially when further mechanization began to compete in the air and on the screen.

This is reflected today in what is known in press jargon as “rewrite,” and the American press is today undergoing reconstruction on the French model with editorial color in the news.

With levelling, the yellow press took something from its betters, but the ochre has run also into the pages of some of the grand old journals.

The craze for spectacular news and lurid color has scarcely abated under any influence and it is possibly true that the American press has been the strongest single factor in the spread of American crime.

The suggestive power of a contemporary tabloid is beyond the imagination of most of us; it is beginning to be understood by psychiatrists.

Mechanical composition began the impetus which has made the United States, in all the world, the most articulate nation. Inherently, the frenzied desire to express must oppose the collective impulse. The conflict is strong at this moment even within that giant of consolidation, the American press.

Above all the economic and commercial forces of the moment, opinion keeps emerging triumphant and free. In the best American papers its freedom seems at times even to shake off the stranglehold of the advertisers. They, at all events, impose almost the only limitation on its liberty.

It is a condition that the rest of the world may well envy. And the historian of the future will find in the copies of those American newspapers whose publishers have been thoughtful enough to print them on rag paper, the greatest compendium of information on the state of the times that exists in the world today.

Mechanical composition brings to a close our record of the collective impulse. The effects of that impulse not only on society but on invention will be visible throughout our book.

We enter now discussion of “consolidation.” The word is used in its familiar, current military sense: ground is first gained, then consolidated. The wilderness is conquered, the nation is born; the land must now be worked and built upon, the political entity drawn together into a tighter unit.

The first physical factor of that consolidation that we shall encounter is wire. Wire might well be a symbol of American unity. It may, one day, be a symbol of American dispersion. From fence to dynamo to telephone it is integral in our history.

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