Twain on risk vs. return in tech investing
“Prophesy is a good line of business, but it is full of risks.” __ Mark Twain
When considering printing technology, no one knew those risks better than Mark Twain. His pet project, the Paige Compositor, nearly sent him and his family tumbling into bankruptcy and never did see mass production. But the former printer’s devil would never give up on the idea of using new inventions to enhance the presentation of the written word.
He would have been awe-struck with the possibilities of news aggregators, interactive novels, and new and improved display technology. But he most certainly would have wanted to get in on the ground floor of the most promising of the lot. And he would have promoted it vigorously.
“All other inventions of the human brain sink pretty nearly into commonplaces contrasted with this awful mechanical miracle. Telephones, telegraphs, locomotives, cotton gins sewing machines, Babbage calculators, jacquard looms, perfecting presses, Arkwright’s frames – all toys, simplicities! The Paige Compositor marches alone and in the far lead of human inventions,” wrote Twain in letter to his brother Orion, in 1889.
The Paige Compositor, an automatic-typesetting machine invented by James W. Paige, was designed to save time in the printing process. The well-known author invested as much as $300,000 in before pulling the plug on the project.
“Though the Paige Compositor was faster than the Linotype, its 18,000 parts were prone to malfunction. Paige’s invention exhibited superior technological achievement, but its price and temperamental nature made it unattractive to a business world that had already embraced the Linotype. Still, it is regarded today as one of the finest examples of nineteenth century mechanical engineering,” notes The Mark Twain House & Museum, where the only remaining one in existence resides in the basement. It has never been taken apart since it was loaned to the museum by the Merganthaler Linotype Company and installed there in 1958, for fear it may be impossible to put together again.
In addition to his investment in the compositor, Twain is also credited with writing the first novel in America to be written on a typewriter. Twain, in his autobiography remembered that first as the manuscript for “Tom Sawyer” in 1874 but typewriter historian Darryl Rehr holds that it was “Life on the Mississippi” in 1882. Regardless, the Remington Typewriter Company seized the opportunity to drop his name to promote its product for years following the disclosure in his autobiography.
The Twain (Clemens) House in Hartford Connecticut was one of the first to have a telephone in that city and revered author was known to pal around with eccentric inventor of alternating current, Nikola Tesla, who had a lab in Colorado Springs and another one in Cripple Creek.
“I have just seen the drawing and description of an electrical machine lately patented by Mr. Tesla and sold to Westinghouse Company, which will revolutionize the whole electric business of the world,” wrote Twain in his notebook in 1888.
Later Twain visited Tesla’s lab and they both frequented The Players Club in New York and attended parties with contemporaries such as a Teddy Roosevelt, Rudyard Kipling, and John Muir.
Tesla’s inventions, of course, have made possible some of the wondrous developments of the modern day. Like a “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” Twain already saw such possibilities. But, as he was also fond of mentioning, “The more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it.”