Today, we'll 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.
Typesetters in Gutenberg's
time had to pick up and set one letter at a time.
And that's how type was still set just ahundred
years ago. Between 1822 and 1884, inventors
struggled to mechanize this slow process. Ottmar
Merganthaler finally succeeded with his Linotype
machine in 1884. After that, Linotype operators set
type five times as fast as a human typesetter
But historian Judith Lee tells us about another
inventor, James Paige. Paige patented his own
typesetting machine, the Paige Compositor, 12 years
earlier. Then he joined with the Farnham Company in
1877. The Farnham Company went to its best known
investor, Mark Twain, for support. Twain was
intrigued by Paige's machine and began to put money
into it. By 1882 Paige had built a functioning
Paige made two subtle, but serious, mistakes in
designing his machine. The first was a compulsion
to keep improving it. He wasn't ready to patent the
production version until 1887. By then, Linotype
machines had been on the market for three years.
But Paige was certain he had the better machine.
His Compositor could set type 60 percent faster
than the Linotype. How could he lose!
Mark Twain had long since become a true believer in
the Compositor. By now he'd assumed a major
financial responsibility for it in exchange for a
percentage of the anticipated profits.
Then Paige's second mistake surfaced. The
Compositor was a temperamental race-horse -- the
Linotype was a steady work-horse. Paige'd designed
his machine to function like a human being. He'd
consciously copied human hand motions. But
Merganthaler had made his Linotype without
reference to human function. He understood that
machines can move in ways that humans can't. So his
Linotype was simpler, cheaper, easier to maintain,
and less liable to break down. Machine tolerances
weren't as tight. Furthermore, with 18,000 parts,
Paige's Compositor was far more complicated. It
ultimately priced itself right 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 one surviving Compositor is
housed in the Mark Twain Memorial in Hartford,
Connecticut. It's a beautiful machine.
But we'd better understand today that good designs
have to do more than just carry out their function.
Good designs have to be robust, simple,
maintainable, and easy to manufacture.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds