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Mergenthaler on U.S. Postage Stamp

Mergenthaler on U.S. Postage Stamp

Ottmar Mergenthaler, from Hachtel in Baden Wuerttemberg's Tauber Valley, has been called a second Gutenberg. Like Gutenberg, Mergen- thaler 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 school- master'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.

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 Mergen- thaler 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 difficulties. 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 him: why a separate machine for casting and another for stamping? Why not stamp the letters and immediately cast them in mental in the same machine?

Much effort and another fifty patents were required before he 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. He nonetheless continued to work unceasingly until his death at the early age of 44 in Baltimore on October 28, 1899.

From: Gerard Wilk, Americans from Germany,
Max Kade German-American Center, Indiana University-Purdue University,
1995, p. 26-27.

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