millions. There were thousands of printing presses in
the world. Every such machine with hand-assembled
type was bound to become obsolete overnight. He
had a huge, disruptive innovation that was striking
at the root of the industry.
And Clemens was right: the hand-assembled
press was doomed. And Paige was right, too: his
amazingly elaborate invention, elegantly mimicking
human movements with its 18,000 parts, could set
type ten times faster than any human being could.
The Paige Compositor was a kind of robot teenage
Sam Clemens; it did just what Sam himself had
once done, but on an industrial speed and scale.
Then, however, came the human element. James
Paige was brilliant, a great talker, a mechanical
genius, and a hacker perfectionist. Obsessed with
his own brilliance, Paige couldn’t budge his machine
out of the start-up garage and into the hurly-burly
of commerce. With 18,000 different parts, there
was always some nifty upgrade to be made to the
Compositor. Then there was the allure of Paige’s
moonlighting side projects, such as electrical
generators. Paige couldn’t be bothered to field-test
his machine under real-world conditions. His
Compositor was always in beta and never quite
ready to ship.
In the meantime, the Mergenthaler Linotype
appeared on the publishing scene. The Linotype
was a rugged, stupid, IBM-PC of a beast. The
Linotype was 60 percent slower than the elegant
Paige Compositor, but it was also the first to market. Furthermore, since the Linotype wasn’t quite
so saturated with technical genius, it was easier
to maintain, repair, and improve.
Ottmar Mergenthaler had never bothered to
mimic any human movements. Trained as a watchmaker, not a printer, he’d invented an entirely new
way to line up type mechanically. So, in the race
toward a printing revolution, the Paige Compositor
never left the starting gate.
Clemens had happily trifled with many tech
toys over the years, but the Compositor was his
demon. He sank $200,000 of his own wealth into
his grand dream of reinventing print. But his steel
darling was obsolete before it could hit the streets,
and Clemens hit a cash-flow crunch that he could
He finally wrote: “I’ve shook the machine, and
never wish to see it or hear it mentioned again. It
is superb, it is perfect, it can do ten men’s work. It is
26 Make: Volume 09
worth billions, and when the pig-headed lunatic,
its inventor, dies, it will instantly be capitalized and
make the Clemens children rich.”
The Compositor was indeed superb, it was perfect,
and it could do ten men’s work, but as an investment, the Paige Compositor was poison. It never
made anyone rich. Superb perfection and the work
of ten men were not at issue. Ease of maintenance,
ruggedness, mass production, cheapness of operation, room for improvement — a machine that
worked like a real machine — that was what the
industry required. The Paige Compositor was as
rare a thing as Clemens himself.
Crushed by debt, Clemens shut down his mansion, abandoned his crumbling publishing interests,
gave up all hope for a settled, bourgeois existence,
and fled with his family to Europe, for what turned
out to be nine years of globe-trotting exile. Within
Clemens sank $200,000
into his grand dream of
four years, scraping frantically, he’d managed to
pay off his creditors. Still, he never again wrote in
the easy, funny, chatty way that he’d written before
trying and failing to become a tech mogul.
Great wealth would always be denied him. Great
fame would fall on him in heaps, and that would
bury every other aspect of his efforts. He would
never become Samuel Clemens, Venture Angel. To
this day, he’s Mark Twain, Famous Author.
As for James Paige, “a most great and genuine
poet, whose sublime creations are written in steel”
— he is entirely forgotten, except as the man who
bankrupted Mark Twain.
The last models of the Paige Compositor were
bought by the Mergenthaler company, picked up as
curiosities. In 1964 — while their Linotype was still
a going business — they donated the last surviving
Compositor to Mark Twain’s house and museum.
There, the genius machine still stands today, admired
by tourists: gorgeous, unworked, and unworkable.
Bruce Sterling ( email@example.com) is a science fiction writer
and part-time design professor.