Today, meet the man who bankrupted Mark Twain. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
From Gutenberg down through
the 19th century, typesetters all had to pick up,
then position, one letter at a time. It was slow,
intense work. In the early 1800s it became clear
that that would have to change. The new fast
presses were driving the output of printed material
skyward. In the 1820s inventors began looking for
ways to mechanize typesetting. In 1884
Ottmar Mergenthaler finally emerged from a pack of
competitors with his Linotype machine.
Linotype operators set type five times faster than
hand typesetters could.
Historian Judith Lee tells about Mergenthaler's
most fascinating competitor. James Paige patented
the Paige Compositor in 1872. Five years
later he joined with the Farnham Company, and they
turned to their best-known investor, Mark Twain,
for support. Twain was intrigued by Paige's machine
and began putting money into its development. By
1882 Paige had a functioning compositor.
On the surface, Paige was coming up roses, but he'd
made two subtle mistakes in his design. The first
was his compulsion to keep improving it. He wasn't
ready with a production version until 1887. By
then, Linotype machines had been on the market for
three years. That didn't worry Paige. He was
certain he had the better machine. His Compositor
could set type sixty percent faster than the
Linotype. How could he lose!
Mark Twain had long since become a true believer in
Paige's Compositor. By now he'd assumed the major
financial responsibility in exchange for a
percentage of anticipated profits.
Then Paige's second mistake surfaced. The
Compositor was a temperamental racehorse. The
Linotype was a steady workhorse. Paige had designed
his machine to function like a human being. He'd
consciously copied human hand motions. Mergenthaler
had made his Linotype without reference to human
function. He understood that machines can move in
ways that humans cannot. So his Linotype was
simpler, cheaper, easier to maintain, and less
liable to break down. Machine tolerances weren't as
With 18,000 parts, Paige's Compositor was far more
complicated. Of course it priced itself out of the
market. It took until 1894 for the competitive
failure of the Compositor to become complete. After
that, Paige died penniless in a poorhouse and Mark
Twain went bankrupt. Twain later observed that he'd
learned two things from the experience -- not to
invest when you can't afford to, and not to invest
when you can.
The last surviving Compositor is housed in the Mark
Twain Memorial in Hartford, Connecticut. It's a
beautiful machine, but it reminds us that good
designs have to do more than carry out a function.
They have to be robust and uncomplicated. Good
designs find that solid simplicity which is at the
root of anything worthwhile.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds