First Mechanical Composition
For over 400 years, the most time-consuming task in publishing was the process of composition. All of the author’s text had to be set by hand, one metal character at a time. Compositors worked from type cases, full of multiple copies of every letter of the alphabet (upper and lowercase), figures, ligature, punctuation, and miscellaneous signs and symbols. A fast compositor could set thousands of character in a day, but his labor was compounded by the fact that all the type he had set had to be distributed back in his typecases after a job was printed. Many printers did not have enough type to set an entire book at one, so the processes of composition and distribution had to be carried out signature by signature.
The Tribune Book of Open-Air Sports represents the first truly successful breakthrough in book composition. It was set on a Linotype machine, a mechanical composition device invented in the 1880s by Ottmar Mergenthaler. Instead of mechanically composing type (as other inventors had tried, including one sponsored by Samuel Clemens), the Linotype machine employed a magazine filled with type matrices which could be composed into text by an operator at a keyboard. As soon as each line of text was set, the assembled matrices were slid laterally over into a casting unit which injected molten type metal into all the matrices at one. Hence the name, Linotype machine. Once cast, the matrices were recirculated back into their respective storage slots in the magazine.
The New York Tribune newspaper helped to underwrite the development of the machine and, when a reliable model was finally produced by Mergenthaler in 1885, began to use it to set its daily papers. Two years later, the Tribune Company used the Linotype machine to produce the first book set by mechanical composition. According to a note on the copyright page, “This book is Printed Without Type, being the First Product in Book Form of the Mergenthaler Machine which wholly Supersedes the Use of Movable Type.” The Linotype machine proved to be a huge success, especially for newspaper composition.