If I were to ask you to name a key Western historical figure in printed communication, you might mention Johann Gutenberg. In the mid-1450s, he and his partner published the Gutenberg Bible in Germany. They used a movable type printing press that featured metal letters rather than woodcuts.
Nevertheless, it still took around three years to print about 200 copies of the Bible, “a miraculously speedy achievement in the day of hand-copied manuscripts.”
At that time, the Bible contained 1,282 pages of 42 text lines, “overall about 3.5 million single letters.” Gutenberg’s press produced about 200 bibles in the same period it would have taken a “skillful writer” to create only one.
In 1620, Francis Bacon wrote that three inventions changed the world: “printing, gunpowder and the mariner’s needle [compass].” All three, along with paper, were initially invented in China. Printing dates to 1040.
Gutenberg’s printing press accelerated communication, helped kickstart the Renaissance and made Martin Luther the “first best-selling author.” Historian Ada Palmer notes that marginalized groups, like Luther’s Protestant revolution, are often the first to use new information technologies.
Another German-born inventor, Ottmar Mergenthaler, further accelerated the spread of the printed word.
His invention, Linotype, could quickly set complete type for use in printing presses using a keyboard and mechanical process. In contrast, Gutenberg’s movable type was (slowly) set by hand, letter-by-letter. Mergenthaler patented Linotype in 1884.
Before newspapers adopted the new technology, no daily was greater than eight pages due to cost and time, given “the output of a skilled typesetter [was] about 1400 characters per hour.” The Linotype machine reduced costs by one-third and speeded up production by a factor of four. The average speed: 30 words per minute
Linotype used molten lead (“hot type”) to cast each line as a continuous block (hence “line o’ type”). It was being adopted widely by newspapers around the globe.
On 03 July 1886, the New York Tribune was the first newspaper to use a Linotype machine, setting page four of the edition mechanically.
The editor and publisher, Whitelaw Reid, had helped finance Linotype’s development. As with much 19th century mechanization, Reid installed the machines “in opposition to the typographic union.”
The 90-character keyboard on the Linotype looks nothing like a typewriter (or computer) keyboard:
Lower case letters are on the left, and upper case are on the right. In between, five rows of numbers and special characters. Letters are arranged by frequency of their use in English.
Linotype would be superceded by cold type (photocomposition).