The Ludlow System

Ludlow Slugs
Lud­low Slugs

The Lud­low people were very proud indeed of their ‘sys­tem’, and when one looks at their claims and the sim­ple util­ity of the approach I won­der why more print­ers didn’t use the sys­tem and why it wasn’t more pop­ular in the UK.  The sys­tem was des­cen­ded from try­ing to sim­pli­fy linecast­ing machines, but an even sim­pler approach was embod­ied in the Lud­low.  Pro­duc­tion began in Chica­go in 1912 and by 1919 the Lud­low was in use in 350 offices.

In print­ers’ terms, the sys­tem was ‘hand-set’ ‘slug-line’ com­pos­i­tion: this means that for each char­ac­ter needed, a brass mould (call a ‘mat’) needed to be col­lec­ted and assembled by hand; and the Lud­low machine would be used to cre­ate a single line of type (a ‘slug’).  My first impres­sion was this com­bines the wor­st of hand-set­ting, with the wor­st of slug com­pos­i­tion!  But delve a little more deeply and even the most ardent scep­tic might be per­suaded.

The major selling point was that even the smal­ler print­er could be guar­an­teed to have “an inex­haust­ible sup­ply of fresh, clean type” from which to print with a rel­at­ively small out­lay and lim­ited tech­nic­al sup­port.

This art­icle, in parts, explores the prin­ciples and oper­a­tion of the Lud­low, the typo­graphy and the effi­ciency of the sys­tem.


Wil­li­am Reade was approached with the idea for such a machine by Wash­ing­ton I. Lud­low and estab­lished the Lud­low com­pany in 1906.  The first design was based on a two-foot long mat­rix bar with each char­ac­ter stamped on it.  While that idea proved imprac­tic­al, the essence of offer­ing a small machine for smal­ler offices that provided an ever­last­ing sup­ply of type was fixed and devel­op­ment con­tin­ued.  It was Janu­ary 1911 when the approach of using single matrices was first pub­licly demon­strated.  The demand soon came not from people want­ing the machine; but people want­ing oth­er matrices.  The com­pany had to design spe­cial­ist machines to punch matrices in the num­bers needed.

In 1936, McMurtrie noted that –

For many classes of work it offers unique advant­ages and eco­nom­ies. It has pos­sib­il­it­ies of a still wider field of use­ful­ness. In short, it is a machine which mer­its the care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion of any print­er hav­ing much dis­play com­pos­i­tion to pro­duce.