Saturday, January 14, 2012

Disastrous Invention: Paige typesetting machine.

Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835 – 1910)  is best known as a writer. But he was also an inventor and entrepreneur. One of his ventures, an investment of about $300K in James W. Paige's typesetting machine, turned into a financial disaster that contributed to the author's bankruptcy in 1894.

Here's what Twain had to say about the personality of J.W.Paige:
"What a talker he is! He could persuade a fish to come out and take a walk with him. When he is present I always believe him; I can't help it. 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 till he died." (NYT. October 1, 1940.

The idea behind the typesetting machine was create an electro-mechanical device that could eliminate the expensive and laborious task of setting newsprint. Eventually, the machine proved to be too complex and unreliable for the task. On the business side, disagreements about patent rights scared away potential investors and led to significant delays in implementation.
...the reason the Paige compositor was never manufactured was due to the fact that at this time Paige, who controlled the patents, refused to part with a sufficient interest to induce other capitalists to invest the large amount required to conduct the business successfully, and was not attributable to any mechanical failure or defect in the machine. In this way three years were lost. It was during these three years that Philip T. Dodge assumed control of the Mergenthaler Linotype Company, and by a very successfully drawn contract with the newspapers and publishing houses, practically secured control of their composing rooms, and placed the Mergenthaler Company in a position to set the price at which the Paige machine could be marketed.

At the time, Paige's patent was probably the most voluminous in the US Patent Office history (59 pages). It took almost 13 years to prosecute it. In contrast, Edison's light bulb filament patent was granted in 3 months.

"One of the examiners died while the case was pending, another died insane, while the patent attorney who originally prepared the case also died in an insane asylum."
- John S. Thompson. History of Composing Machines.
The typesetter was worse than worthless because it ruined Twain's financially and destroyed his business reputation. Eventually, the machine and related patents were bought by a collector, reconstructed, and donated to Cornell University.

tags: patent, invention, business, model

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