A brief history of type technology

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If the number of typefaces out there seems overwhelmingly gigantic, even infinite, that’s because it is. Digital technologies have made the creation, distribution and use of fonts amazingly easy. As a result, brilliant type designers are constantly at work on new, interesting ways to shape our alphabets. You can rest assured that there will be more fonts next week than there were this week.

It wasn’t always this way. Before personal computers and word processing, the process of both designing and printing fonts was a lot more cumbersome, limited by technologies that are now obsolete.

In the last post, we laid out the basic terms needed to describe typography. Soon, we will look at the evolution of typeface styles over the centuries, leading up to today’s ever-expanding array of digital letter forms. But because style and technology always progress hand-in-hand, another amazing history lesson must come first: the evolution of printing technologies, from Johannes Gutenberg to the PC.

Pre-digital type technologies

Handwriting and calligraphy, 3200 BC

This was a system of written language emerges in ancient mesopotamia. It is handwritten on parchment-like material.

Calligraphy in action; photo by Crypt K.

Woodblock printing, 220 AD

This technology, which emerged first in Asia, involved cutting a section of text into a single block of wood, dipping it in ink and pressing it onto paper to make copies. Once carved, the woodblock bears the text permanently.

Woodblock printing; photos by changecase and vlasta2

Movable type letterpress printing, 1040 AD (China)/1450 AD (Europe)

These were metal font molds are produced for individual letters. Text is arranged manually, letter by letter, using a composing stick. The finished block of text is then inked and pressed onto paper. From there, the letters can be rearranged into new text and used again. This possibility of reuse makes printing much more efficient.

The famous European inventor of the technology is Johannes Gutenberg, and his invention is heavily credited for the information revolution that sparked the Renaissance and ensuing modern period. However, the technology existed in Asia a few centuries before.

A movable type tablet (top; photo by purdman1) and its most famous product: the Gutenberg bible (bottom; photo by NYC Wanderer )

Wooden font molds, 1800s

These are occasionally used for larger fonts, instead of the usual metal molds.

Continuous casting, 1890s

The linotype (line-o’-type) machine makes it possible to compose entire lines of type at once using a 90-character keyboard, instead of having to manually arrange a press letter by letter. The lines are cast in molten metal “on the fly” and then the letter molds are immediately ready for re-use, so the process can move along continuously.

This revolutionizes newspaper printing; previously, due to the time and labor constraints involved in letterpress printing, no newspaper was over 8 pages long!

The linotype machine (photos by shadfan66 and jdlasica)

Phototypesetting, 1950s

This machine projects light through a cut-out of a font character, onto a film that is then treated chemically to bear the mark permanently. This system has the advantage of scalability — magnifiers can be used to adjust the size of the type image freely, without having to bring in a new font cutout. Of course, digital vector technology would soon leave this advancement in the dust.

Phototypesetting (images from Luna’s Cafe and Wikipedia)

Digital typography (mid 1980s – present)

Bitmap (raster) fonts

Bitmap fonts are a data file that contains glyphs in pixel form. Because it is not scalable like a vector, a bitmap font must contain many sets of pre-determined sizes (traditionally just 8, 9, 10, 12, 14, 18, 24, 36, 48, and 72pt), each in every permutation of regular, bold, and italic.

Bitmap font formats: PCF, BDF, SNF, DWF, BF, AFM, FON, BMF, PSF, PK

A pixilated bitmap character (image from Wikimedia Commons) and bitmap files for 3 font sizes (image from JOT)

Outline (vector) fonts

Outline fonts are sets of mathematically described lines and curves that trace the outline of glyphs. They are infinitely scalable without pixilation.

Vectorized font (image from Adobe)

And here we are! Tune in next week for our final installment on the evolution of typeface styles over the centuries.

Which printing technique is your favorite? Share it in the comments.

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Alex contributes from New York City on topics ranging from branding and typography to the history of design.