Mark Twain: A Biography, by Albert Bigelow Paine

Chapter CLXXIV

The Machine

The reader may have realized that by the beginning of 1891 Mark Twain’s finances were in a critical condition. The publishing business had managed to weather along. It was still profitable, and could have been made much more so if the capital necessary to its growth had not been continuously and relentlessly absorbed by that gigantic vampire of inventions — that remorseless Frankenstein monster — the machine.

The beginning of this vast tragedy (for it was no less than that) dated as far back as 1880, when Clemens one day had taken a minor and purely speculative interest in patent rights, which was to do away with setting type by hand. In some memoranda which he made more than ten years later, when the catastrophe was still a little longer postponed, he gave some account of the matter.

This episode has now spread itself over more than one-fifth of my life, a considerable stretch of time, as I am now 55 years old.

Ten or eleven years ago Dwight Buell, a jeweler, called at our house and was shown up to the billiard-room-which was my study; and the game got more study than the other sciences. He wanted me to take some stock in a type-setting machine. He said it was at the Colt’s Arms factory, and was about finished. I took $2,000 of the stock. I was always taking little chances like that, and almost always losing by it, too. Some time afterward I was invited to go down to the factory and see the machine. I went, promising myself nothing, for I knew all about type-setting by practical experience, and held the settled and solidified opinion that a successful type-setting machine was an impossibility, for the reason that a machine cannot be made to think, and the thing that sets movable type must think or retire defeated. So, the performance I witnessed did most thoroughly amaze me. Here was a machine that was really setting type, and doing it with swiftness and accuracy, too. Moreover, it was distributing its case at the same time. The distribution was automatic; the machine fed itself from a galley of dead matter and without human help or suggestion, for it began its work of its own accord when the type channels needed filling, and stopped of its own accord when they were full enough. The machine was almost a complete compositor; it lacked but one feature — it did not “justify” the lines. This was done by the operator’s assistant.

I saw the operator set at the rate of 3,000 ems an hour, which, counting distribution, was but little short of four casemen’s work. William Hamersley was there. He said he was already a considerable owner, and was going to take as much more of the stock as he could afford. Wherefore, I set down my name for an additional $3,000. It is here that the music begins.

It was the so-called Farnham machine that he saw, invented by James W. Paige, and if they had placed it on the market then, without waiting for the inventor to devise improvements, the story might have been a different one. But Paige was never content short of absolute perfection — a machine that was not only partly human, but entirely so. Clemens’ used to say later that the Paige type-setter would do everything that a human being could do except drink and swear and go on a strike. He might properly have omitted the last item, but of that later. Paige was a small, bright-eyed, alert, smartly dressed man, with a crystal-clear mind, but a dreamer and a visionary. Clemens says of him: “He is a poet; a most great and genuine poet, whose sublime creations are written in steel.”

It is easy to see now that Mark Twain and Paige did not make a good business combination. When Paige declared that, wonderful as the machine was, he could do vastly greater things with it, make it worth many more and much larger fortunes by adding this attachment and that, Clemens was just the man to enter into his dreams and to furnish the money to realize them. Paige did not require much money at first, and on the capital already invested he tinkered along with his improvements for something like four or five years; Hamersley and Clemens meantime capitalizing the company and getting ready to place the perfected invention on the market. By the time the Grant episode had ended Clemens had no reason to believe but that incalculable wealth lay just ahead, when the newspapers should be apprised of the fact that their types were no longer to be set by hand. Several contracts had been made with Paige, and several new attachments had been added to the machine. It seemed to require only one thing more, the justifier, which would save the labor of the extra man. Paige could be satisfied with nothing short of that, even though the extra man’s wage was unimportant. He must have his machine do it all, and meantime five precious years had slipped away. Clemens, in his memoranda, says:

End of 1885. Paige arrives at my house unheralded. I had seen little or nothing of him for a year or two. He said:

“What will you complete the machine for?”

“What will it cost?”

“Twenty thousand dollars; certainly not over $30,000.”

“What will you give?”

“I’ll give you half.”

Clemens was “flush” at this time. His reading tour with Cable, the great sale of Huck Finn, the prospect of the Grant book, were rosy realities. He said:

“I’ll do it, but the limit must be $30,000.”

They agreed to allow Hamersley a tenth interest for the money he had already invested and for legal advice.

Hamersley consented readily enough, and when in February, 1886, the new contract was drawn they believed themselves heir to the millions of the Fourth Estate.

By this time F. G. Whitmore had come into Clemens’s business affairs, and he did not altogether approve of the new contract. Among other things, it required that Clemens should not only complete the machine, but promote it, capitalize it commercially. Whitmore said:

“Mr. Clemens, that clause can bankrupt you.”

Clemens answered: “Never mind that, Whitmore; I’ve considered that. I can get a thousand men worth a million apiece to go in with me if I can get a perfect machine.”

He immediately began to calculate the number of millions he would be worth presently when the machine was completed and announced to the waiting world. He covered pages with figures that never ran short of millions, and frequently approached the billion mark. Colonel Sellers in his happiest moments never dreamed more lavishly. He obtained a list of all the newspapers in the United States and in Europe, and he counted up the machines that would be required by each. To his nephew, Sam Moffett, visiting him one day, he declared that it would take ten men to count the profits from the typesetter. He realized clearly enough that a machine which would set and distribute type and do the work of half a dozen men or more would revolutionize type composition. The fact that other inventors besides Paige were working quite as diligently and perhaps toward more simple conclusions did not disturb him. Rumors came of the Rogers machine and the Thorne machine and the Mergenthaler linotype, but Mark Twain only smiled. When the promoters of the Mergenthaler offered to exchange half their interests for a half interest in the Paige patent, to obtain thereby a wider insurance of success, it only confirmed his trust, and he let the golden opportunity go by.

Clemens thinks the thirty thousand dollars lasted about a year. Then Paige confessed that the machine was still incomplete, but he said that four thousand dollars more would finish it, and that with ten thousand dollars he could finish it and give a big exhibition in New York. He had discarded the old machine altogether, it seems, and at Pratt & Whitney’s shops was building a new one from the ground up — a machine of twenty thousand minutely exact parts, each of which must be made by expert hand workmanship after elaborate drawings and patterns even more expensive. It was an undertaking for a millionaire.

Paige offered to borrow from Clemens the amount needed, offering the machine as security. Clemens supplied the four thousand dollars, and continued to advance money from time to time at the rate of three to four thousand dollars a month, until he had something like eighty thousand dollars invested, with the machine still unfinished. This would be early in 1888, by which time other machines had reached a state of completion and were being placed on the market. The Mergenthaler, in particular, was attracting wide attention. Paige laughed at it, and Clemens, too, regarded it as a joke. The moment their machine was complete all other machines would disappear. Even the fact that the Tribune had ordered twenty-three of the linotypes, and other journals were only waiting to see the paper in its new dress before ordering, did not disturb them. Those linotypes would all go into the scrap-heap presently. It was too bad people would waste their money so. In January, 1888, Paige promised that the machine would be done by the 1st of April. On the 1st of April he promised it for September, but in October he acknowledged there were still eighty-five days’ work to be done on it. In November Clemens wrote to Orion:

The machine is apparently almost done — but I take no privileges on that account; it must be done before I spend a cent that can be avoided. I have kept this family on very short commons for two years and they must go on scrimping until the machine is finished, no matter how long that may be.

By the end of ’88 the income from the books and the business and Mrs. Clemens’s Elmira investments no longer satisfied the demands of the type-setter, in addition to the household expense, reduced though the latter was; and Clemens began by selling and hypothecating his marketable securities. The whole household interest by this time centered in the machine. What the Tennessee land had been to John and Jane Clemens and their children, the machine had now become to Samuel Clemens and his family. “When the machine is finished everything will be all right again” afforded the comfort of that long-ago sentence, “When the Tennessee land is sold.”

They would have everything they wanted then. Mrs. Clemens planned benefactions, as was her wont. Once she said to her sister:

“How strange it will seem to have unlimited means, to be able to do whatever you want to do, to give whatever you want to give without counting the cost.”

Straight along through another year the three thousand dollars and more a month continued, and then on the 5th of January, 1889, there came what seemed the end — the machine and justifier were complete! In his notebook on that day Mark Twain set down this memorandum:


Saturday, January 5, 1889-12.20 P.M. At this moment I have seen a line of movable type spaced and justified by machinery! This is the first time in the history of the world that this amazing thing has ever been done. Present: J. W. Paige, the inventor; Charles Davis, | Mathematical assistants Earll | & mechanical Graham | experts Bates, foreman, and S. L. Clemens. This record is made immediately after the prodigious event.

Two days later he made another note:

Monday, January 7 — 4.45 P.m. The first proper name ever set by this new keyboard was William Shakspeare. I set it at the above hour; & I perceive, now that I see the name written, that I either mis-spelled it then or I’ve misspelled it now.

The space-bar did its duty by the electric connections & steam & separated the two words preparatory to the reception of the space.

It seemed to him that his troubles were at an end. He wrote overflowing letters, such as long ago he had written about his first mining claims, to Orion and to other members of the family and to friends in America and Europe. One of these letters, written to George Standring, a London printer and publisher, also an author, will serve as an example.

The machine is finished! An hour and forty minutes ago a line of movable type was spaced and justified by machinery for the first time in the history of the world. And I was there to see.

That was the final function. I had before seen the machine set type, automatically, and distribute type, and automatically distribute its eleven different thicknesses of spaces. So now I have seen the machine, operated by one individual, do the whole thing, and do it a deal better than any man at the case can do it.

This is by far and away the most marvelous invention ever contrived by man. And it is not a thing of rags and patches; it is made of massive steel, and will last a century.

She will do the work of six men, and do it better than any six men that ever stood at a case.

The death-warrant of all other type-setting machines in this world was signed at 12.20 this afternoon, when that first line was shot through this machine and came out perfectly spaced and justified. And automatically, mind you.

There was a speck of invisible dirt on one of those nonpareil types. Well, the machine allowed for that by inserting of its own accord a space which was the 5-1,000 of an inch thinner than it would have used if the dirt had been absent. But when I send you the details you will see that that’s nothing for this machine to do; you’ll see that it knows more and has got more brains than all the printers in the world put together.

His letter to Orion was more technical, also more jubilant. At the end he said:

All the witnesses made written record of the immense historical birth — the first justification of a line of movable type by machinery —& also set down the hour and the minute. Nobody had drank anything, & yet everybody seemed drunk. Well-dizzy, stupefied, stunned.

All the other wonderful inventions of the human brain sink pretty nearly into commonplaces contrasted with this awful mechanical miracle. Telephones, telegraphs, locomotives, cotton-gins, sewing-machines, Babbage calculators, jacquard looms, perfecting presses, all mere toys, simplicities! The Paige Compositor marches alone and far in the land of human inventions.

In one paragraph of Orion’s letter he refers to the machine as a “cunning devil, knowing more than any man that ever lived.” That was a profound truth, though not as he intended it. That creation of James Paige’s brain reflected all the ingenuity and elusiveness of its creator, and added something on its own account. It was discovered presently that it had a habit of breaking the types. Paige said it was a trifling thing: he could fix it, but it meant taking down the machine, and that deadly expense of three thousand or four thousand dollars a month for the band of workmen and experts in Pratt & Whitney’s machine shops did not cease. In February the machine was again setting and justifying type “to a hair,” and Whitmore’s son, Fred, was running it at a rate of six thousand ems an hour, a rate of composition hitherto unknown in the history of the world. His speed was increased to eight thousand ems an hour by the end of the year, and the machine was believed to have a capacity of eleven thousand. No type-setter invented to this day could match it for accuracy and precision when it was in perfect order, but its point of perfection was apparently a vanishing point. It would be just reached, when it would suddenly disappear, and Paige would discover other needed corrections. Once, when it was apparently complete as to every detail; and running like a human thing, with such important customers as the New York Herald and other great papers ready to place their orders, Paige suddenly discovered that it required some kind of an air-blast, and it was all taken down again and the air-blast, which required months to invent and perfect, was added.

But what is the use of remembering all these bitter details? The steady expense went on through another year, apparently increasing instead of diminishing, until, by the beginning of 1890, Clemens was finding it almost impossible to raise funds to continue the work. Still he struggled on. It was the old mining fascination —“a foot farther into the ledge and we shall strike the vein of gold.”

He sent for Joe Goodman to come and help him organize a capital-stock company, in which Senator Jones and John Mackay, old Comstock friends, were to be represented. He never for a moment lost faith in the final outcome, and he believed that if they could build their own factory the delays and imperfections of construction would be avoided. Pratt & Whitney had been obliged to make all the parts by hand. With their own factory the new company would have vast and perfect machinery dedicated entirely to the production of type-setters.

Nothing short of two million dollars capitalization was considered, and Goodman made at least three trips from California to the East and labored with Jones and Mackay all that winter and at intervals during the following year, through which that “cunning devil,” the machine, consumed its monthly four thousand dollars — money that was the final gleanings and sweepings of every nook and corner of the strong-box and bank-account and savings of the Clemens family resources. With all of Mark Twain’s fame and honors his life at this period was far from an enviable one. It was, in fact, a fevered delirium, often a veritable nightmare.

Reporters who approached him for interviews, little guessing what he was passing through, reported that Mark Twain’s success in life had made him crusty and sour.

Goodman remembers that when they were in Washington, conferring with Jones, and had rooms at the Arlington, opening together, often in the night he would awaken to see a light burning in the next room and to hear Mark Twain’s voice calling:

“Joe, are you awake?”

“Yes, Mark, what is it?”

“Oh, nothing, only I can’t sleep. Won’t you talk awhile? I know it’s wrong to disturb you, but I am so d — d miserable that I can’t help it.”

Whereupon he would get up and talk and talk, and pace the floor and curse the delays until he had refreshed himself, and then perhaps wallow in millions until breakfast-time.

Jones and Mackay, deeply interested, were willing to put up a reasonable amount of money, but they were unable to see a profit in investing so large a capital in a plant for constructing the machines.

Clemens prepared estimates showing that the American business alone would earn thirty-five million dollars a year, and the European business twenty million dollars more. These dazzled, but they did not convince the capitalists. Jones was sincerely anxious to see the machine succeed, and made an engagement to come out to see it work, but a day or two before he was to come Paige was seized with an inspiration. The type-setter was all in parts when the day came, and Jones’s visit had to be postponed. Goodman wrote that the fatal delay had “sicklied over the bloom” of Jones’s original enthusiasm.

Yet Clemens seems never to have been openly violent with Paige. In the memorandum which he completed about this time he wrote:

Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms, and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had him in a steel trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap until he died.

He was grabbing at straws now. He offered a twentieth or a hundredth or a thousandth part of the enterprise for varying sums, ranging from one thousand to one hundred thousand dollars. He tried to capitalize his advance (machine) royalties, and did dispose of a few of these; but when the money came in for them he was beset by doubts as to the final outcome, and though at his wit’s ends for further funds, he returned the checks to the friends who had sent them. One five-thousand-dollar check from a friend named Arnot, in Elmira, went back by the next mail. He was willing to sacrifice his own last penny, but he could not take money from those who were blindly backing his judgment only and not their own. He still had faith in Jones, faith which lasted up to the 13th of February, 1891. Then came a final letter, in which Jones said that he had canvassed the situation thoroughly with such men as Mackay, Don Cameron, Whitney, and others, with the result that they would have nothing to do with the machine. Whitney and Cameron, he said, were large stockholders in the Mergenthaler. Jones put it more kindly and more politely than that, and closed by saying that there could be no doubt as to the machine’s future an ambiguous statement. A letter from young Hall came about the same time, urging a heavy increase of capital in the business. The Library of American Literature, its leading feature, was handled on the instalment plan. The collections from this source were deferred driblets, while the bills for manufacture and promotion must be paid down in cash. Clemens realized that for the present at least the dream was ended. The family securities were exhausted. The book trade was dull; his book royalties were insufficient even to the demands of the household. He signed further notes to keep business going, left the matter of the machine in abeyance, and turned once more to the trade of authorship. He had spent in the neighborhood of one hundred and ninety thousand dollars on the typesetter — money that would better have been thrown into the Connecticut River, for then the agony had been more quickly over. As it was, it had shadowed many precious years.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00