samuel clemens, failed investor -- 5/20/20

Today's selection -- from The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time by Keith Houston. Samuel Clemens invested in a typesetting machine and almost went bankrupt:

"The first typesetting machine to intrude into the public consciousness was the so-called Paige Compositor. In development since the early 1870s, this ill-starred device was the brainchild of James W. Paige, a charming, devious ex-oilman blessed with a talent for self-promotion and cursed with a pathological inability to see projects to their conclusions. Supporting Paige's endless tinkering was an increasingly bitter Samuel Clemens -- better known as the author Mark Twain -- whose expenditure on the project would crest $170,000 before the 1880s were out and leave the writer in perilous financial straits.

"Clemens and Paige's entanglement began in 1880, when a mutual acquaintance took the writer to see Paige's embryonic typesetting device. Having worked for years as a journeyman printer and compositor, Clemens was much taken with the charismatic inventor and his miraculous machine. Flush with the success (and the proceeds) of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Clemens gamely invested $2,000 in Paige's enterprise, though he was realistic about his prospects of getting it back. As he wrote in a later account of the affair, 'I was always taking little chances like that; and almost always losing by it, too.'

The Paige Compositor

"The machine that Paige demonstrated to Clemens solved two-thirds of the problem of mechanical composition. Where a human compositor would pluck characters from a wooden type case and place them on a composing stick. Paige's machine sparred an alphabetic keyboard that released characters from channels arrayed along the top of the machine and assembled them into a line. Separately, a distribu­tion mechanism accepted 'dead matter' -- pages that had already been set and printed -- and sorted the characters back into the appropriate channels. The only thing missing was the ability to 'justify' the type, to tweak the spaces between words so that each line perfectly abutted the margins of the page, as they have done in most printed books since Gutenberg's time. By 1886, Paige had completed a new version that could reliably set and distribute type many times faster than a human, though justification was still beyond it. Clemens implored the inventor to put the device on sale as it was, but Paige argued that a justification mechanism was a necessity. Clemens conceded, against his better judgement, and Paige began to work on an entirely new machine that would integrate setting, justification, and distribution.

"Even as Clemens chafed at Paige's endless delays, he continued to funnel money into the project. The writer's weakness was that he knew too much about the business of printing: he had seen firsthand how cantankerous human workers could get and was obsessed with the notion that printers would welcome Paige's device with open arms. It was, as Clemens saw it, a perfect mechanical employee that would never get drunk, that would work as diligently at three o'clock in the morning as it would at three in the afternoon, and that was immune to unionization. Having assured Clemens at the outset that the work could be done in a few months and would cost no more that $9,000, Paige nevertheless labored on for four more years and spent another $150,000 of the writer's money -- some $4,000,000 today -- before finally completing the machine. ...

"The Paige Compositor was a masterpiece of mechanical engineering, and a true marvel. It was also fatally flawed. By attempting to replicate the human actions required to set type -- the composition, justification, and distribution of individual letters -- Paige had doomed his machine. ... By 1894 the success of other, simpler devices had exposed the Paige Compositor as the elaborate folly it was; Clemens was almost bankrupt, and Paige died broke and forgotten. The writer's venomous biographical account of 'The Machine Episode' concluded thusly: 'Paige and I always meet on effusively affectionate terms; and yet he knows perfectly well that if I had his nuts in a steel-trap I would shut out all human succor and watch that trap till he died."



Keith Houston


The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most Powerful Object of Our Time


W.W. Norton & Company


Copyright 2016 Keith Houston


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