June 22, 2010

Mark Twain's Big Bonanza

I have been sitting by the machine 2 1/2 hours, this afternoon, and my admiration of it towers higher than ever. There is no sort of mistake about it, it is the Big Bonanza.

So begins a letter from Samuel Clemens, written from his Hartford, Connecticut home on June 22, 1890. The machine he refers to, the "Big Bonanza," was the Paige Compositor, was an impressive piece of technology that was, by many accounts, exciting just to look at. Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain) believed it would revolutionize the printing industry. Between 1880 and 1894, he invested $300,000 of his own money to support its development (equal to over $7 million today).

He considered it a good investment, even though it often broke down (and, because of its many moving parts, there were many opportunities for problems). "I claim yet, as I have always claimed, that the machine's market (abroad and here together,) is today worth $150,000,000," Clemens wrote optimistically.

"This machine is totally without a rival," Clemens's letter continues. "Rivalry with it is impossible." Or so he thought. At the same time, the Linotype machine was in development. Its reliability took the Paige Compositor out of the competition — and left Clemens with serious financial problems. The collapse of the publishing house he owned with his nephew only made it worse (though it had some early success). He eventually recovered, but no thanks to his "Big Bonanza."

His letter closes: "It makes me cheerful to sit by the machine," followed by an invitation to his friend to come by for a drink.

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