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.