Mergenthaler’s declining health’s Colorado connection

Ottmar Mergenthaler died in 1899 after several years of declining health after he developed tuberculosis in 1894. In some of the brief biographies about him on the internet, (Letterpress Commons, Wikipedia), this part of his life gets little or no attention. I haven’t read Romano’s history of the linotype company, and perhaps Frank covered it in greater detail. I find no mention of it in a quick perusal of Schlessinger’s book on Mergenthaler. The latter book is seriously deficient in terms of a usable index, something Carl skipped when putting his book together.

In a brief paragraph in the December 1897 Inland Printer, it is noted that “Mr. Mergenthaler lost all his personal property and many valuable papers including the drawings for a new typesetting machine” in a fire that destroyed the home where he was staying on November 4 of that year. He was living in Deming, New Mexico at a home owned by Col. James A. Lockhart of Colorado Springs. The home was valued at $20,000 which for the time must have been quite special.

The Letterpress Commons article mentions only that Ottmar was in New Mexico in 1897 because of health reasons but attaches no significance to it other than for health. I searched the internet briefly to see who James Lockhart was and he shows up as a director of the Kansas Colorado Railroad Co. in 1908. It appears that he was an investor / promoter in Colorado at the time, and since Ottmar was working on a new typesetting machine, I would assume Lockhart was one of his new backers and a benefactor. Colorado Springs hosted other well known promoters including another railroad promoter, Gen. William Jackson Palmer, whose railroad empire included the line that still serves Silverton where I live. I’m sure there’s more information on Lockhart but I’d have to take a drive to the Springs and actually do some real research in their library and historical society. Colorado Springs has attracted other notables in its history, such as Nicola Tesla, who in 1899 established a laboratory for some of his electrical experiments.

For me, this has been an interesting piece of putting together some of the remarkable story of Ottmar to a Colorado connection that I had never heard of before. The exact same story about the fire also appears word for word in the American Stationer for 1897, p. 802. Periodicals often ran page numbers consecutively for a full year’s worth of publications, and then would publish a yearly index of all the articles.

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Not related directly to your research, but your comments triggered my thoughts.

I recently put together a class in The History of Books and Printing for a local college, and in taking a look at current Internet resources, there seemed to be a growing assumption that Ottmar M. was living in Germany, with comments about the Linotype invented in the same country as Gutenberg’s developments. That brought to light for me the assumptions which are promulgated in this era of speedy information and scant research. German name, thus German citizen. Of Course Mergenthaler was a German citizen until the 1870s, but it would be difficult to claim the linotype as a German machine.

I’m glad you are going back to contemporary sources and not relying on Internet “scholarship”.

John Henry
Cedar Creek Press

The Internet accelerates this problem, of course, but lack of care in scholarship has been a problem for a long time. One example which concerns Mergenthaler would be the “Simplex” Linotype. You can read in good printed sources about how Mergenthaler developed the “Simplex” Linotype (Huss’ The Development of Printers’ Mechanical Typesetting Methods puts it at 1890; George Corban Goble’s dissertation on the Linotype conflates it with the machine later known as the Model 1 (1892); Frank Romano’s Machine Writing and Typesetting conflates it with the Square Base machine of 1890 (and mixes this up with the Model 1); Basil Kahan’s biography, “Ottmar Mergenthaler” (the best biography of Mergenthaler) conflates it with the Model 1. These are the current basic secondary print sources for information on the origin of the Linotype.

Yet if you could travel back in time and ask Ottmar Mergenthaler about the “Simplex” Linotype he just built, he’d think you were crazy. He never built a machine called the “Simplex.” Neither did the Mergenthaler Linotype Company. Ever.

The name “Simplex” was a name used by the German Linotype firm (originally Mergenthaler Setzmaschinen-Fabrik GmbH) by 1901 for their post-1896 derivative version of the Model 1 Linotype that had been introduced in the US (as just “the Linotype”) in 1892. In the German-language literature of the 1920s and 1930s, when they started looking back on the early history of the Linotype *in Germany*, there were references to this German “Simplex” Linotype.

The problem occurred in 1954, when Linotype GmbH (Berlin) commissioned Willi Mengel to write a volume commemorating the centenary of Mergenthaler’s birth: Die Linotype: Erreichte das Ziel. Mengel made several simultaneous mistakes. He conflated several dates and machines (1889, when Mergenthaler filed the patent for the machines that followed the Blower; 1890, when a prototype of what became the Model 1 was exhibited; the machine shipped commercially in 1890, which was the Square Base). Then he called all of these the “Simplex” and illustrated it with a drawing of something like the machine introduced in 1892 which became the Model 1.

By July 1954 the Mergenthaler Linotype Company (NY) had published an American edition in translation - a good translation which accurately repeated all of Mengel’s errors. By August 1954, the ITU had at its annual meeting passed a resolution as a Tribute to Ottmar Mergenthaler which identified the Simplex Linotype as his crowning achievement. It’s no wonder that Huss, Goble, et al. were confused, as by 1954 the Mergenthaler Linotype Company didn’t even remember its own history accurately.

For sources and details, see:

There are errors on the Internet, to be sure. But the more basic problem in understanding the history of type-making technology is that most of the authoritative printed sources of the 20th century contain serious errors.

Edit/Addition: I failed, above, to address a rather obvious question: ok, so we know the German Linotype company used the name “Simplex” - how do we know that Mergenthaler (man or company) did not? Here’s where our digital world today helps. While text searching is imperfect, it is still possible to search turn of the 20th century texts much more thoroughly digitally than was possible with physical print. Having done so, I have found that while “Simplex” turns up for the German machine, there is no instance of any use of this term in America for Linotypes before the MLC published their translation of Mengel’s book in 1954.

David M.