In the early 1930s, India was in the midst of great change: politically, to end British rule; economically, with industrialization; and educationally, to increase literacy rates and bring about the universal adoption of the Devanagari alphabet, an ancient script that has been in use since at least the seventh century CE. The ability to print in the vernacular languages of India would help education efforts across the population. Enter Hari Govil, writer, editor, Indian language expert, art enthusiast, and inventor, who worked with the Mergenthaler Linotype Company to design and perfect printing equipment for the Hindi language.
Devanagari, which is read left to right, is the major script of Hindi and, at the time of Govil’s work, was the language used by more than one hundred million people. As the “national script” of India, it was used widely in business, literature, journalism, and for general communication. But many of the languages that employ the script require between 700 and 2,000 printing characters—too many for the Linotype machine. Furthermore, Devanagari script comprises vowels as well as consonants and the vowels appear above or below the consonant characters, making its adaptation to the standard Linotype keyboard complex. Govil’s work involved reducing the number of characters needed for typesetting, developing the Devanagari typographical font by combining interchangeable segments of script into complete characters. “Elements are so designed,” Govil wrote in his patent, “that they can be joined . . . with one another to produce complete . . . characters.” With his font, the Linotype machine could compose text in Hindi (Hindustani), as well as Behari, Bengali, Gujarati, Jaina, Konkani, Marathi, Nepali, Rejasthani, Sanskrit , Sherpa, and Sindhi. Hari Govil received US Patent 2,074,216 in 1937 for his typographical font, and assigned it to the Mergenthaler Linotype Company of New York.
The development of Devanagari within the Mergenthaler Company was as complex as the script itself. Delivering a faster, cheaper, and more uniform method of printing required cooperation among several players on three continents:
- Harold Bender, chair of the Department of Oriental Languages and Literature at Princeton University;
- Norman Brown, Professor of Sanskrit Literature and Devanagari script at the University of Pennsylvania;
- C. H. Griffith, Vice President of typographical development at Mergenthaler;
- Norman Dodge, President of Mergenthaler;
- Reginald Orcutt, Vice President for Overseas at Mergenthaler;
- Victor E. Walker, Linotype Limited Machinery (London); and
- Hari Govil.
They worked together to create a standard 90-key Linotype, bringing it to patent, publicizing and demonstrating it in India, and promoting sales of the machine.
Mergenthaler was concerned with the political implications (specifically regarding the British government) of creating a Linotype machine for the composition of Indian languages. Writing in August of 1933, Harold Bender noted that Govil, an Indian familiar with both the country and the language, would be better suited than Orcutt, even though Orcutt was in charge of overseas operations. There is an underlying tone through the Mergenthaler corporate correspondence that Govil might not be the right man for the job and the decision to the contrary by Mergenthaler management did not come easy. Bender discreetly investigated Govil’s personal qualifications on behalf of Mergenthaler. In a letter to Norman Dodge, Bender wrote of Govil, “He is an intelligent and well-informed gentleman of the middle classes in India, but not without contact with the highest castes. He is a Brahman and a Hindu by birth, social position and religion, educated at the Indian University in Benares, and has therefore ready approach to people in India with whom he would have to deal.” (NMAH.AC.0666, Box 10, Folder 1)
At the time, Griffith felt that there were men in India with whom it would be dangerous to enter into a relationship regarding the Linotype, due to their political or religious agendas, but noted that Govil “had no axe to grind.” (NMAH.AC.0666, Box 10, Folder 1) Although Govil was an Indian nationalist, he navigated the political landscape with tact and diplomacy, demonstrating the Linotype in Calcutta (now Kolkata), Bombay (now Mumbai), and other city centers, and bringing it to the attention of as many prospective customers as possible. Govil’s contract with Mergenthaler stated that he was to sell two Linotype machines while in India. The Prabasi Press, which printed books for Calcutta University and the Allahabad Law Journal, ultimately purchased Linotypes. Based on these sales, Victor E. Walker, Deputy Chairman of Linotype and Machinery Limited, wrote in April 1934, “We are willing to produce, or, if you prefer, have you produce, any reasonable number of sizes and faces necessary to build up a satisfactory volume of business.” (NMAH.AC.0666, Box 10, Folder 2)
Introducing the Devanagari Linotype system to India under actual working conditions had to be carefully observed and assessed. While Govil had successes in demonstrating the Linotype to Indian publishers, printers, type founders, learned pundits, academics, journalists, and educators, he also faced several challenges—a lack of trained operators, lack of sales staff at the Linotype company in India, and an inability to sustain the publicity and advertising that were critical to the Devanagari Linotype’s success. In addition, Govil’s work in India demonstrating the Devanagari Linotype triggered competitive activity by the Monotype and Intertype companies. Mergenthaler invested substantial money in the study and development of the Devanagari system for the Linotype and was keen on protecting its position and designs and making sure that competitors did not supply matrices identical or similar to the Mergenthaler Devanagari system. (NMAH.AC.0666, Box 10, Folder 1)
Hari Govind Govil (1899-1956) was born in Bikaner, India. He attended the University of India Benares and arrived in the United States from India on the SS Olympia, on September 5, 1920. An Indian nationalist and supporter of Ghandi, Govil wanted Indian independence from the British. In the United States, he founded the India Society of America in 1924 to promote Indian art and music and the country as a whole. The Orient, a bimonthly magazine of art and culture, edited by Govil, was first published in 1923. Govil married Annette “Anne” Goldberg (1897-1942) on August 13, 1924; she died in India of malaria and heart failure in August 1942. Govil was detained in India in 1939 by the British and released in 1947, returning to New York City. He later worked on a Devanagari Fotosetter Machine in collaboration with the Intertype Corporation of Brooklyn and with International Business Machines to adapt Devanagari for the typewriter. Govil also patented a perpetual calendar (US Patent 1,802,344) in 1931 and a clasp and tag (US Patent 1,909,101) in 1933.
To learn more about the Devanagari script and linotype technology, visit the Archives Center and the Mergenthaler Linotype Company Records.
- Feddirka, Sarah. “Reorienting Modernism: Transnational Exchange in the Modernist Little Magazine Orient.” English Language Notes 49, no. 1 (2011): 77–90.
- Georgina, Fiona and Elisabeth Ross. “The Evolution of the Printed Bengali Character from 1778 to 1978.” Thesis, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 1988.
- Hambidge, Gove. “Teaching Sixth of the World to Read.” New York Herald Tribune, June 18, 1933.
- “Hari G. Govil, Indian Leader Here, Dies; Expert on Printing of Hindi Language.” New York Times, July 10, 1956, 31.
- National Archives and Records Administration. General Records of the Department of State. NAI Number: 302021. Record Group 59; Series Number: Publication A1 205; Box Number: 1147; Box Description: 1940-1944 India Bo – La.
- National Archives and Records Administration. Passenger Lists of Vessels Arriving at New York, New York, 1820-1897. Microfilm Publication M237, 675 rolls. NAI: 6256867. Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Record Group 36.
- National Archives and Records Administration. Petitions for Naturalization from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, 1897-1944. Series: M1972. Roll: 765.
- Science News-Letter 24, no. 648 (September 9, 1933).