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Inventor Burned Out Trying to Automate Printing
By Fred Reed, Coins Magazine
September 09, 2013

This article was originally printed in Coins Magazine.
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I have been fortunate in my career in publishing to span eras from hot type to digital publishing. In 1972 Kwangmyong Publishing Co. in Seoul, the Korean government’s printer, was still setting lines of interchangeable type for my Army authorized newspaper, The Gauntlet. Today my articles/books are digitally set direct to plate.

After I got out of the Army, in grad school I signed on as a compositor/proof reader for the daily student newspaper at Oklahoma State University. We used state-of-the-art Compugraphic typesetting equipment. A female operator typed out copy. Her keystrokes were recorded as holes in a paper tape, which I fed through the phototypesetting machine.

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The tape cued a long negative plastic font strip containing a complete character set that zipped around to expose the correct letter or numeral to a beam of light that burned the image of the type on photosensitive paper. When the paper was developed in a dark room, it could be pasted or glued in place on a layout sheet that was then sent to a large camera operator who shot the entire sheet and made a negative to expose a printing plate that was fastened to the press. Voila!

The composing equipment represented by the unissued stock certificate shown here represents an early stage in the development of typesetting and printing that preceded all my experience by a century or more. I just love this certificate and the story it represents.

Timothy Alden (presumably shown at upper right of the stock certificate here) was born in Barnstable (Yarmouth), Mass. June 14, 1819. As a youth of 16 he apprenticed to a printer and became a typesetter. The monotonous drudgery of pulling type from a type case and aligning it as text, and then having to “toss type,” i.e., redistribute it to its type boxes after use, depressed him.

In 1838 he announced that “If his life should be spared him,” a journalist later reported, “he would invent a machine that would relieve compositors of that offensive profession they were led to follow.”

He began tinkering with a mechanism to make typesetting faster. In 1846 he traveled to New York to solicit capital to continue his research. Alden’s first patent for a typesetting and distribution machine was no. 3089, granted in 1856.

In 1857 both W.H. Houston and Timothy Alden patented automatic typesetters. Alden’s patent (18,175) was dated Sept. 15. His machine worked.

The Alden employed a keyboard. According to company literature, the operator sat at the side of a circular table and pressed one key for each of 154 characters and symbols. A wheel two feet in diameter sat in the center of the table. Around the wheel were 36 fingerlike conveyors, “setting antennae,” and beyond these arms was a series of grooves where the types were stored.

The wheel revolved, impelled by a foot treadle, horse, or steam power, and the conveyors picked type as the operator poked. As the wheel revolved, it summoned the types from whichever groove was indicated by the keyboard operator. As the wheel passed a drop point, it deposited the types one-by-one into a tray corresponding to a typesetter’s stick. “Could anything be more like brain turned into brass?” asked Alden’s brochure.

Alden’s concept also solved distribution, i.e., returning the used type back to their appropriate type case boxes, solving the onerous problem of “tossing type” before commencing fresh work. After Alden had cobbled together his machine and spent six months trying to perfect it, he died of exhaustion on Dec. 4, 1858, at the tender age of 39. “In twenty years of constant, driven effort, the inventor of the Alden Typesetting Machine had worn himself out,” a biographer posited.

On his deathbed, Timothy Alden bequeathed his invention to his cousin and business partner Henry W. Alden, who had already invested $40,000 on the project. Henry was faced with “a long list of imperfections in his machine design.”

Silent and in the background until his cousin’s death, Alden plunged ahead. Four years later he demonstrated his typesetter to the New York Times, which ordered 12 machines. But Henry could not deliver the 12 machines the Times wanted. Out of funds, after constructing three working models, he ceased production.

Several months later, a financial angel entered the picture, Charles C. Yeaton, a New York businessman. Yeaton formed a $100,000 joint stock company that employed the stock shown.

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