Mergenthaler Linotype Company
The Mergenthaler Linotype Company was instrumental in changing how printing was done, making the process faster and more efficient with its innovative hot metal type setting machines. These machines helped to automate printing, eliminating the need to move type by hand. Today the company has evolved and is now part of a German company that makes typographical software and designs digital fonts.
While the typesetting products that Mergenthaler made did not contain asbestos, they were used in high-temperature environments. This means that they were used alongside asbestos insulation for many years. People who got sick from this insulation were mostly the workers who repaired and maintained the linotype machines. Some of them developed terrible illnesses like mesothelioma and lung cancer and sued Mergenthaler over it. For Mergenthaler, the litigation was not enough to drive it into bankruptcy.
The Mergenthaler name might not be well known today, but Ottmar Mergenthaler and his company were instrumental in making printing easier and more efficient and therefore in making newspapers and magazines more accessible to more people. Mergenthaler made the first linotype machine in New York in 1886. Before this machine, typesetters printed materials by setting the type by hand, which obviously took a lot of time. This limited how much could be printed and made the cost of printed materials high. With the new linotype machine, the typesetter could simply use a keyboard to instruct the machine to automatically set the type.
Ottmar Mergenthaler made his first linotype machine in 1886 and founded the Mergenthaler Linotype Company in Brooklyn, New York, in 1890. The first use of the linotype machine was in the printing of The New York Tribune. That newspaper was the company’s first customer, and it bought several linotype machines after the demonstration which showed just how quickly it could print newspapers.
The success of Mergenthaler’s company took off quickly. Within ten years of business the company was selling thousands of machines and dominating the market. The business expanded with its success and began manufacturing and selling machines across the U.S. and in factories in other countries. It wasn’t until the 1970s that the machine started to become obsolete and competitors began to affect Mergenthaler’s sales and success. To change with the times, the company switched focus to digital and computerized printing.
In the 1990s Mergenthaler merged with a German company to create the larger, international company called Linotype-Hell AG. This move took the company away from typesetting and into software and digital fonts. The company today is a subsidiary of Monotype Imaging Holdings. Because Mergenthaler machines were hot, at one time they were used with asbestos insulation and this led to illnesses in some workers. The resulting asbestos lawsuits did not overwhelm the company, and it never had to file for bankruptcy protection or create an asbestos trust fund to compensate victims.
Asbestos Use with Linotype Machines
The Mergenthaler Linotype Company made and assembled the parts for linotype machines, but they did not use asbestos in this process. However, their machines did get insulated with asbestos insulation. Asbestos is very efficient and effective at insulating against heat. These machines were used with high temperatures and good insulation was needed to contain the heat. At one time in the 20th century, asbestos insulation was the most common choice for industrial insulation needs like these.
Use of asbestos for insulation and other purposes went on in many industries before it was fully realized that the fibers of this natural mineral were harmful to human health. Inhaled fibers lodge in tissues and cause damage that may lead in some people to mesothelioma, lung cancer, or asbestosis, a progressive scarring in the lungs. If asbestos is contained, it poses no risk, but when exposed or damaged, those fibers can come loose and cause harm.
Workers Exposed to Asbestos
Although Mergenthaler did not exactly make its products with asbestos, it did line them with insulation made with asbestos. Those workers most at risk of having been exposed to the fibers were those who packed the insulation and those who installed, maintained, and repaired Mergenthaler linotype machines. The operation manual for the linotype machines instructed these types of workers to manipulate the asbestos by breaking it away and repacking it around the crucible in the machine. We know now that this kind of handling of asbestos can cause fibers to come loose and expose workers.
Those workers who were most at risk from Mergenthaler’s asbestos insulation were the repair technicians. They made repairs to machines which often included chipping away old asbestos and replacing it with new insulation or asbestos cement. Workers how assembled the machines were also at risk because they packed the insulation into the gaps in the machine. The asbestos was designed to protect the machines from overheating and to protect workers from heat and fire, but the same material also caused serious damage to the health of these workers.
Not everyone who is exposed to asbestos gets sick, but those who do get very seriously ill with terminal conditions. The workers who got sick because of the linotype machines began to sue Mergenthaler when it became clear that asbestos caused these illnesses. Mergenthaler did not face as many suits as some other companies that used asbestos, and this may have saved it from bankruptcy. Among the few cases it faced, Mergenthaler was able to settle out of court for amounts that were not disclosed. Even so, there are still some active cases against the company that have yet to be resolved.
Because of the company’s great success over many decades and the limited number of asbestos-related lawsuits against it, Mergenthaler was able to survive the asbestos controversy and emerge as a successful modern company. Unlike similar companies that used asbestos, it never filed for bankruptcy and it never formed an asbestos trust for victims of exposure. Today the company is still in the type business, creating digital fonts and typing software under the name Linotype-Hell AG and as a subsidiary of a larger company.
Although Mergenthaler was never forced to create a trust for victim compensation, that does not mean that victims cannot get justice. There are still pending lawsuits against Mergenthaler, even though it no longer exists under that name. These victims are seeking compensation for the illnesses they have suffered because of the asbestos insulation used in the linotype machines. If you believe that you too were a victim of the Mergenthaler linotype machine, you can join these other plaintiffs and file your own lawsuit against the company.
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