Yesterday's Technology . . . Today!

A History of Mechanical Type Composition

I wrote this thesis back in 1979 as part of City and Guilds studies. I have reproduced it here exactly as it was written.

IN THIS thesis I am setting out to give a brief summary of mechanical composing machines from Mr Church's first unsuccessful effort back in 1822 to the present day.

I hope to define several distinct types of machines. I will point out the various features of the early machines which have been incorporated into the modern-day Linotype machines.

Photocomposition is not covered, although most photocomposing machines are mechanical in their operation.

There are two broad categories of composing machines: Cold type composing machines, these simply assemble previously cast founders' type into lines. The others are hot metal composing machines, which cast and compose fresh characters each time from the one machine, usually from matrices.

The first patented composing machine was Church's Composing Machine, 1822. This machine was probably never built, but detailed plans were forwarded to the patent office.

A clockwork mechanism powered the machine, as electricity supply was virtually non-existent in 1822It involved founders' type being stored in inclined channels, and released by means of a keyboard. Lines produced on this machine were completely unjustified, this being carried out by a second compositor by hand.

William Church suggested that the type matter produced on his machine be scrapped after each printing, and fresh type cast. A clockwork mechanism powered the machine, as electricity supply was virtually non-existent in 1822.

The Young and Delcambre Composing Machine of 1840 was the first machine known to have actually been made and seen active service. It was used to set the "Family Herald" which was founded in 1842. The machine was quite similar to Church's earlier machine.

The problem of characters arriving in the wrong order was solved by an associate of Young and Delcambre, Henry Bessemer who is famous for his work in the steel-making field.

He curved the inclined channels to make them of equal length.

The London Union of Compositors opposed the machine because female labour was used to operate it.

The Hattersley Composing Machine of 1857 was used on the "Daily News" of South Wales right up until 1915.

The storage and release of type on this machine was similar to its forerunners. The improvements this machine brought were: A more compact keyboard and a better delivery of the type so that it was easily accessible to the compositor who had to justify it.

7,500 characters per hour could be composed by a nimble operator. A later development on this machine was a distributing mechanism.

In 1867 a Warrington journalist, Dr Alexander Machie, invented a composing machine which used the idea of a continuously perforated paper strip (which was used in the operation of looms more than 100 years previously) to operate his machine.

The tape was punched on a separate keyboard. The type was stored in pockets round the edge of a revolving disk, and from this passed into a channel where it was justified by hand.

The machine earned the nickname of "pickpocket." The system of a separate keyboard providing punched tape for the operation of the composing machine was later used on the Monotype system.

The Kastenbein Composing Machine of 1869 was quickly put into service by "The Times."


They used it in conjunction with a Wicks Rotary Typecaster to produce a "no distribution" system now almost universal on hot metal newspapers.

The new type was held in vertical tubes and released by operation of a keyboard. The lines were still justified by a second compositor. The machine was supplied with its own distributing machine.

The Thorne Composing and Distributing machine was patented in America in 1880.

The machine had two vertical cylinders, each with 90 channels. The channels of the upper cylinder had to be wide enough to accept any character in the fount.

The channels in the lower cylinder, however, only admitted characters with the correct combination of nicks on the back. Because of this basic principle, all founts to be used in this machine had to be specially adapted.

The keyboard released the lowest characters from the channels, which were driven onto a galley where justification was carried out by hand.

These machines were used on the "Morning Post" until replaced by Linotypes in 1910The Wicks Composing Machine of 1883 was invented by Frederick Wicks who had previously invented the Wicks Rotary Typecaster. Type was released from inclined channels by a keyboard and justified by hand.

The most frequent permutations of characters could be set by pressing two or more keys simultaneously. These machines were used on the "Morning Post" until replaced by Linotypes in 1910.

The Linotype was invented in 1890 by Ottmar Mergenthaler. Large numbers of matrices were stored in the magazine, released by a keyboard and assembled into words.

These words were separated by double-wedge spaces used for justification. The line of matrices were brought in front of the mould, justified by means of the spacebands, and cast into a slug.

The matrices have teeth cut into a V-shaped groove on their upper part. They were lifted by these teeth to the distributor-bar which had grooves to correspond with the teeth on the matrices. The grooves on the distributor-bar were designed so that when the matrix was above the correct channel in the magazine there were no grooves to correspond with the teeth on the matrix so it fell into its correct channel.

The idea of the circulating matrix was Mergenthaler's but the following is a list of ideas that he "borrowed:"

1. The keyboard – from the Hattersley Composing Machine.

2. The magazine – from the Thorne Composing Machine.

3. The guide plate and curving channels – from the Young and Delcambre machine.

4. The system of grooves and teeth – from the Thorne Composing machine.

5. The double-wedge spaceband – was invented in 1879 by J W Schuckers.

The Paige Compositor of 1894 was developed at a cost of several million dollars by J W Paige of New York.

It was a cold-type composing machine, but very versatile. It produced justified lines – thus eliminating the need for a second compositor. Type produced could be set solid or leaded.

Distribution could take place at the same time as composing. It was never a big success – it had been superseded by the Linotype.

The Monotype keyboard, 1897, was invented by Tolbert Lanston. The keyboard punches holes on a spool of paper which controls the mechanism of the caster.

It also calculates character widths to facilitate justification. The idea was "borrowed" from the Machie Composing Machine, which was in turn a copy of the looms from the previous century.

The Monotype Caster, 1897, carries matrices arranged in a grid secured by a steel case. The paper tape controls the position of the matrix case over the mould.

The first perforation received by the caster determined the size of the inter-word space to facilitate justification – single types.

The Pulsometer Composing Machine of 1902 was the last cold-type composing machine. The type channels were horizontal instead of vertical and justification was by hand.

Characters were again released by means of a keyboard. Distribution was carried out by a separate machine.

The galley of type was angled towards the keyboard operator, he read the type and pressed keys corresponding to the thickness of the character.

From here the character went into its correct channel, where it could be taken out and fed into the composing machine.

W I Ludlow was helped by W A Reade to invent a machine that produced single display lines from hand-assembled matrices.

In 1911 the Ludlow Typograph was put onto the market.

In 1912 the International Typesetting Machine Company of New York produced the Intertype, a slug casting machine very similar to the Linotype.

Coming nearer to the present day, it was realised that faster speeds could be achieved by Linotypes and Intertypes by deploying TTS tape control. The following new models were introduced:

Model 79 (Linotype) Works at 12 lines per minute. The machine has only two magazines inclined at a steeper angle to obtain a better flow of matrices.

Elektron (Linotype) Can maintain a speed of 15 lines per minute. This machine abolishes the assembler elevator to increase speed.

Monarch (Intertype) Works at 14 lines per minute. This machine usually has no keyboard because it was specifically designed for tape control.

Linasec (Linotype) It is claimed that this machine can operate at 60 lines per minute. The machine has its own logic unit for computing line endings, etc.

There are two variations of the hot-metal model. One uses variable spacebands, the other uses fixed spaces and centres the line, thus eliminating all the problems associated with spacebands.

Copyright © Dave Hughes 2000-2015. All rights reserved.