The Paige Compositor: Mark Twain’s Terrible Invention

Perhaps more than any other writer in American history (his only competition being Walt Whitman), Mark Twain helped define the voice of the country. Yet, for many years, Twain hoped to do even more. He wanted to upgrade the way people wrote, not just with his prose, but with the introduction of a new invention called the Paige Compositor.

The machine was the brainchild of James Paige, a mechanic and inventor whose goal was essentially to transform the printing press (a machine that required a skilled professional to slowly prepare words to be set onto paper) to something more automatic, closer to a typewriter. Something that could print and align words quickly and cheaply.

Twain met Paige in 1880 and was convinced to invest large sums of money in this project… for more than a decade. By the time the compositor was finally completed in 1889, Twain had sunk the equivalent of $3 million in today’s currency. It wasn’t the first time he’d made a bad investment. Twain once threw money towards a project to create a hand grenade that could extinguish fires. But the compositor was much worse for Twain and nearly bankrupted him.

“Twain’s life became an endless cycle of more bills from Paige, more missed deadlines and more humiliating attempts to summon up some new investors,” according to a feature in the New Scientist. In fact, Twain became so involved in the project that he once admitted in private, “I have never been so desperate in my life, and for good reason, for I haven’t got a penny to my name.”

Unfortunately, the machine proved too temperamental and by 1894, the project was officially deemed a failure. Paige never really recovered from this defeat. Meanwhile, in order for Twain to make up for the huge dent in his bank account, he sold his house and launched into a global lecture tour. If nothing else, this should be a lesson that you should stick to what you’re good at, which in Twain’s case was writing, not being a venture capitalist.

One Response to “The Paige Compositor: Mark Twain’s Terrible Invention”
  1. Paul Milenkovic says:

    You missed the point.

    That Mark Twain (OK, Samuel Clemens) invested so much money that he didn’t have into the Compositor says a lot about who we was. We wasn’t Mark Twain, the riverboat captain from Missouri; he was Samual Clemens, the Connecticut Yankee whose newspaper connections allowed him to marry into a wealthy family but whose appetite for the things money could buy exceeded what they would or could share with him.

    Behind the social satire in his writing was a strong moral tone, the standards behind which he himself could be judged, which is perhaps something that may not apply to other writers who had dissolute lives in other ways.

    Next, with the financial failure of the Compositor and Clemens adhering to his personal moral code in wanting to make his creditors whole rather than walking away from it through bankruptcy, we went on that grueling world tour, where instead of character actor Hal Holbrook being Mark Twain, Samuel Clemens the writer, if you excuse my anachronism, went up on stage to do his best rendition of a Hal Holbrook.

    Don’t you see, the Compositor, that Victorian Era counterpart to the PC and Microsoft Word, that steam punk gadget made Mark Twain immortal. If were not for his desperate circumstances brought on by his own personal quirks, Samuel Clemens wouldn’t have gone on that tour and we would be one of dozens if not hundreds of forgetten 19th century humorous writers.

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