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.