THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET, TYPES, AND FONTS
Sample alphabets are used to illustrate the history . To examine an alphabet sample
picture more closely, click on it, and an enlargement appears. ...
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THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET, TYPES, AND FONTS / Index / back / next
Marks and Writing
One need satisfied by written language is the need to communicate over distances.
Another need was the verification of communication, where memory did not have to be
trusted. Precise meanings can be conveyed through words used in complicated sentences,
which is diffferent than the broad interpretations of pictures.
From early times, making marks allowed communication to move from spoken, oral
language, and pictures, to a written language capable of sustaining messages through
time. Students may be interested in the changes of technology as writing changed from a
pen on paper to movable type. Letterforms changed over the years, and students may find
the psychology of recognition an avenue to explore. Students may also enjoy the
apprpriate uses of certain fonts for certain purposes, and the reasons for font choice.
The very first marks in the history of writing don't look like the modern European
alphabet. Instead, they look like pictures of simple objects. Simple pictures, called
pictographs, were often cut into rocks or painted onto rocks. These are called
Pictographs, sort of a simplified picture, result from common objects that can be named
and used in language. The Sumerian, left column, Early Chinese, middle column, and
Egyptian, right column, pictographs contain simple pictures that can often be recognized,
but are drawn different from culture to culture. Summerian sun is the bottom row,
Eguptian sun is the second down. An interesting combination is the cartouche of an
Egyptian pharoah, bottom right, which combines marks and pictographs to make the
name. This could be inserted whenever needed, like a modern word. In general, though,
alll of these were carved in stone.
THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET, TYPES, AND FONTS / Index / back / next
Writing Script on Paper
When a person wants to write in a less formal way, there are natural substitutes to carving
words out of stone. Stone inscriptions are formal, so daily writing would need to be more
informal. Early writers used pens made of hollow reeds, which made natural strokes that
were both thin and thick. Using wet ink, the tendency is to carry one letter into the next
letter. In everyday writing, the speed used for purely utilitarian purposes makes the
characteristics of natural pen strokes a logical methos of changing the letter forms. So
cursive writing developed and changed the way the written alphabet looked.
The two main kinds of writing were the records of priests and ecclesiastics, called the
hieratic scripts, and the records and transactions of business and market workers, called
the demotic scripts. Below are examples of both, hieratic on the top, and demotic
underneath. The forms of letters show more flowing and more casual corners in the style
of demotic. Lettered on papyrus, writing was a fairly expensive and private endeavor.
Not only do the informal writing alphabets become more casual, but hieroglyphics, the
formal use of language, becomes more simple in its appearance, in a general way, as it is
converted and used by different cultures. Below are examples of 1500 B.C.
Hieroglyphics, 300 B.C. hieratic symbols, 400 B.C. demotic, and circa 1400 B.C. Cretan
Abstraction of the Letterforms
There is an element of secrecy about writing in ancient times. This can be understood as
picture writing became more refined and more abstract. Particular alphabets might be
designed and elaborated upon, but the abstract elements might only be legible to the
priests. In commerce and trade along the Mediterranean, though, the need to understand
and recognize characters developed into a need for similarity of symbols.
The great culture of Phoenicia was to use simplified forms, similar to the Cretan alphabet.
Greece would follow this lead. Suddenly, many of the familiar pictorial roots have
vanished. The formal letters are based on the simple design elemments: the circle, the
straight vertical stroke, the diagonals from upper left or from upper right.
The similarity in the Phoenician (upper) and the Greek (lower) can be seen. Phoenician
reading style is right to left, Greek reading is from left to right.
The Greek alphabet included the development of vowel sounds by inventing characters
for vowels. Whole words could be constructed of vowels and consonants from sound of
words, rather than from the letterforms available.
Everyday script in Greek has an abstract, designed appearance. This is not merely an
abstract decoration but seems to flow from the letterforms themselves, and how the pen
moves as the hand writes letters. this allows for recognition of the more formal letters
imbedded in the everyday forms. The Greek alphabet became more adaptive in its
recognizability, but also more universal becasue of the abstraction away from picture
The Roman Empire
Roman letters are quite readable today. Used for foraml inscriptions on stone monuments,
we can discover that the basic letters have survived as long as the monuments. The letters
were constructed with formal rules. Serifs, looking like little flags at the end of strokes,
signify with certainty the end of the stroke. In design terms, serifs enhance baselines of
the letters, and the serif itself in a smaller proportion of rational design, has a curve of a
specific radius. These rules provide recognition and elegance.
The thickness or thiness of a stroke is generally based on a square cut pen held at a
certain angle, which yields various thickness strokes as the pen draw, for instance, a
capital "O". In addition, lines would, if drawn with a pen, be built up with multiple
strokes for the thick strokes on a letterform. The inference from these designs is that the
Roman letters are rationally designed rather than naturally created by the style of the
As the Roman Empire extended to different countries, examples of the formal letters
would occur in monuments, but also in ink on paper adapted to formal proclamations.
Letters would be written on paper or on parchement, and these kinds of messages
increased writing. One more casual Roman letter used was the Roman Square Capital
letters (below), and another was even more casual, the Roman Rustica (bottom).
What this meant was that different countries, the different patterns of speech and the
different words used in communicating could be recorded in the ordered, accepted,
legible language of the empire. In accepting the Latin language of the empire, the people
were also accepting the design methods of rational design, and the system of proportion,
and the system of abstraction. Abstract, individual letters, combined in myriad ways,
form the words of the Indo-European languages. This is in many ways different than the
development of other ancient languages, like Chinese, which still retained the picture
sources of the early alphabets.
Roman Cursive and the Beginnings of Uncials
As letters changed, the older Roman cursive writing (above, 50 B.C.) gave way to a more
fluid appearance (below, 350 A.D.). Cursive forms of Roman are made in single strokes
instead of built-up, and can be related to the writer's hand position in the slant of letters,
and are related to the writer's speed in the touching of letterforms.
All these design changes suggest that the geometric design might start to give way to
some taller and some shorter letters, and this can be seen as some letters have ascenders.
Ascending strokes and curved forms begin to appear in uncials. Uncials mean inch, and
the naming means that size and width were considered as possible improvements in the
rules of letter-making. Instead of drawing a line above and a line below for guides,
uncials and half-uncials require four guidelines. They also predict a coming improvement
to legibility, the development of lowercase letters.
Uncials Used for Church Purposes
The peculiar variation of curved letters whose design comes from cursive is the uncial
letters, the other influence that the Roman empire had on lettering. This is a design quite
independent of the formal look of the official alphabet, and yet more decorative than
common cursive. Used in documents associated with the Christian Church, uncials show
more changes leading to the development of lower case letters.
Ascenders and descenders are obvious in the uncials below.
Half uncials, one step closer to a true lower case, show various changes. Clearly, the
baseline and top line have a line added in between. While thin and thick strokes are
present, some of the thick strokes are made by pushing the pen. The technique of doing
this pen=pushing instead of pen stroking is not a built up letter, but it results in more
thickness than a single stroke, and it is more dramatic, and more artistic than the usual
cursive. Note that the t is not a cross. Note also that the enlarged capital could be
decorated with gold or a color other than black, and that the partial serifs are decorative.
The most peculiar letter is the s, which would be seen only in old manuscripts, and has a
tall, thin shape reaching the ascender line. This s would survisve for a while in Germany.
Non-Roman Lettering during the Empire
In some countries, a sort of official lettering was developed that did not change with
Roman writing. Lasting as long as the 1300's, some Scandinavian alphabets were more
ancient. The shape of these runes, or runic hands, is created by simplified strokes. A few
straight and diagonal lines in combinations form most of the letters. They really are not
letters of an abstract alphabet, but instead are like picture-writing in their compositions.
They are signs, sued like magical symbols, which is an extreme hieratic form.
An example of a country near the Roman Empire but separate would be Ireland, where,
after Christianity, a kind of modern uncial was developed. In it can be seen more
evidence that separateness could occur in a nation that might not follow the empire style.
The Irish Church developed uncials that rmind us of the runic style of the Scandinavians
in the straightness of the letters and the too-much-importance of the serifs. They,
however, have an extreme decoration and variation in the enlarged captial letters, which
twist and are dotted with a pen that is pointed, all separate from the smooth flow of an
angled pen used in cursive, but like the form of cursive letters in the eveness of the stroke
of the general text. This style is seen in a sample from around 800 A.D.
Irish, French and German Writing
Variation son writing in Irish uncials influenced the English. The look of the Anglo-
Saxons lettering includes some use of runes, like in the letter w, and it has a peculiar
combination of tall, thin letters, pointed serif-like extensions, and almost always a mildly
italic slant. In the sample below, notic the severity of the m and n. Word spacing is more
controlled, but the letters have lost the Roman rules of elegance. Ligatures, ties from
letter to letter, have become an important design element. While this is a tendency in all
cursive, here it looks like more care is given to the connecting of letters than to the
relative proportion between letters.
The lower sample shows Merovingian lettering. In Merovingian writing the ligatures
become as thick as the letter strokes, and cause distortion of the letters themselves, as do
the extremely long ascender strokes. In the sense of legibility, this was a degeneration.
Beginning with Clovis in 700 A.D., the leader, and his Merwig dynasty, and lasting until
Charlemagne, France continued to use this peculiar writing.
Developing in Germany, and eventually replacing Merovingian, the letters become
thicker in the East Frankish alphabet. One reason is the looped ascender in l, h, and d.
Another is the pointed and gradually thickening top of ascenders as in the k. The broad
strokes and broad letters make it necesssary to draw in word separations, which is a
natural choice because of the wider and wider letters, taking more and more space. If
normal word spaces were left, the lettering would fill too much horizontal distance too
quickly. Yet the influence on the Carlovingian lettering is clear. As Charlemagne was
credited with improving many things in literacy and books and writing, something would
develop that makes Carlovingian important in the alphabet, and that is the miniscule, or
In 789 A.D. Carl ordered that all important documents and all recopied documents be
rewritten in one font and style. This was the Carlovingian hand, and it established order
in writing ovedr a large geographic area. Writers in the past had been scholars, but in
order for writing to develop, more people has to read and also write. The ethnography
needed to be ordered, as well, through the development of language types, and that is
clear. The upper sample is from the first German book. This sort of development helped
miscellaneous Germanic peoples form a unified country. The technology changed from a
braod ree pen to a quill pen, making possible the smaller lettering. Looking at the thin
and thick stroke combinations, weight of the hand and pressure on the pen is maore
important thatn slant of the chisel-edge of a reed pen.
Notice the lower sample as it shows great consistency in a line of letters. This sample
from Tours in the 800's shows uniform ascenders, a uniform x height for the small letters,
and enlarged capitals at the beginning of a line. Uniformity like this is one reason the
letters are thought of as a miniscule hand. The miniscule is of great importance to
legibillity, and in reading large groups of text, it makes the reader move quickly from
looking at lettering as magical art to the ideas encoded in the writing.
The period from 1200 to1500 can be called Gothic. Gothic writing was mostly a writing
style developed from Carlovingian. With the rise of the Italian Renaissance, Italian
classicists woould be stylistically inspired by ancient Greek and Roman sources, and
therefore would not openly accepts the Gothic, but would seek to move away from
As in architecture, where the rounded arch based on a circle gave way to the pointed arch,
lettering designed changes in individual letters. Look for the oval shape ending in a point
on the top. Look for the letter O, once rounded, to be constructed of angled, straight
strokes which seem to break the smooth curve. Letters that have ascenders, in order to
keep the letter square, have shorter ascenders. Similarly, the full space in the center of
some letters is compressed so that the letters in a word, and in a page, move toward
In a revival of calligraphy and book-making, and printing by hand from wood blocks,
William Morris and others in the late 1800's would look back with nostalgia to Gothic
lettering and try to emulate its aesthetics. From a different point of view, the modern
technology of the gothic included the use of miniscules and majescules with the already
established decorative initials.
Early Gothic Initials from 1200 to Durer
The first example shows initials from 1100 A.D. In these, the general body of the capital
letter shows a form similar to uncials, but the space inside and around is decorated with
many inventions. The second sample has elaboration in the ends of the strokes that is
quite fanciful and inventive. These decorations establish the majescule initials as a
chance to invent designs.
In the three samples below, from the 1300's, 1400's and 1500's, the evolution can be seen.
The whole curves above, change into broken curves, middle, until, lower, the curves are
confined and the letter is made dense by repetion of the vertical strokes, and the almost
angular "broken" curves. This last type sample, designed by Albrecht Durer, show that
the consmopolitan travels of this German artist were influenced by his contact with the
Italian Renaissance and its rules. Even if Durer was not about to design a Greek or
Roman copy, he too could rely on rules of proportions based on numbers.
All five examples on this page show the use of an initial, or large fancy letter, to get a
reader's attention. The miniscules that followed and led to lower case legibility were
much more patterned and ordered. The texture of a page was seen as dark and staccato,
interrupted at the lead lettter of a selection. This is clearly a counterpart to bulleted
paragraphs used in organizational writing by business in the 20th century. Initials were
clearly seen as decorative, and they could be drawn in colors or gold-leaf, they could be
carefully drawn with a pointed pen and built up, in some cases, since multiple pen strokes
were already in use to create the complicated forms. The second to the last example is
often seen in church documents, or on diplomas, of the 20th century.
Cursive Styles Influencing Early Type
These samples are from the early 1400's, the years immediately preceeding Gutenberg
and the movable type used for his first Bible. In the three samples of cursive writing,
notable similarities to the Carlovingian letters exist, while many of the stylistic changes
are derived from the fact that the cursive writing is an everyday writing that had to be
written quickly. Writing was done by paid professional writers, of whom speed was
The first sample is French. Notice the long tail on the "h", the long "s", and the sweep on
the ascender of the "d". These are Carlovingian, not specifically Gothic.
The second sample is German, and, while slanted generally right like all cursive, uses a
rather left-slanted exxaggeration as the letters. are connected. Broadly wriotten curves are
apparently drawn and give the form its style.
The third sample shows a more upright letter, similar to Irish-Saxon writing, with more
conservative and more gothic looking letters, largely because the flow from letter to letter
is less. These letters are more straight, and are also quickly written.
The first movable type was drawn and engraved by artists familiar with cursive writing
and Gothic. There waould be no ligatures connecting letters, and few small, thin strokes
that characteristically accompany cursive writing. Letters are more upright, and a specific
formal space is created on the printed page when all individual letters match all other
uses of those same letters on the page.
The writing of the Renaissance provided cross-fertilization of ideas in Italy that extended
back to the Germans and French and English who visited Italy. In copying of the Greek
and Roman manuscripts, the scribes took delight in the forms of the ancient Roman
letters. The modifications in cursivve writing were made to the standards of what the
Renaissance writers thought was Roman - the Carlovingian cursive. Althoguh it was from
almost 800 A.D., this revival of the old was meant to replace the Gothic. Anything
Italian, from the Renaissance to the present, became known as humanist.
Characteristics are the long s and the limiting of ligatures to the c and t, a general loss of
adornment and decoration, and a precise writing. Used in manuscripts commisioned by
the wealthy princes of Italy, humanist books were a prpearation for the look of printed
books that were to dominate in a few hundred years.
The below sample shows a writing style with italic slant that has longer ligatures. Current
cursive writing like this was the other style surviving from the Renaissance. Used as a
current kind of cursive, it was written more quickly, and it was a survivor even after the
invention and use of movable type. Movable type looked to the more solid cursive, the
absence of decoration, and the removal of ligatures, while humanistic hands of writers
used compact lettering.
The need for writers even after movable type can be understood as a function of the time
that it took to set type. While a book was a large production, and the amount of time
justified the many copies, some writing did not need to be editioned in large quantities,
and although lengthy in its text, would not justify the time needed for setting type. Legal
and business uses demaned a type like the sample below. And one other profession
benefitted from the practice of constantly drawing letters - the typographer, or type
Spanish Writing Masters
The masters of writing were those who prepared important documents, like the official
maps or royal documents. These are often seen by history students or the curious students
of the voyages of discovery. In Spain, the direct influence on type design can be seen in
Antiqua type, a Roman-style alphabet, and in the lower sample, the 1577 Griffo type
designed by Francesco Lucas.
Notice the swash captials of the type below. When set, the swashes alone make a
variation on the regular italic slant of the alphabet. Resultingly, the type look grandiose,
which would be suitable for the Spanish sense of bravado during the age of discovery and
French Masters and Writing
Like the Spanish writing masters, the French styles contributed their idea of grandeur in
the flourishes with which capitals are constructed. The lettering is the kind used for
formal script today on wedding announcements, and it was in fact used for documents
and financial records in France in the era of the musketeers.
Soon after the samples shown, the pointed pen would come into wide replacement use for
the traditional square-cut pen The pointed pen would be a good tool with which to draw
circular scripts, and in that case, the diffiulcty would be to get adequate thickness, but it
could be done by returning to built-up letters. Some did, and some did not, using pen
presure alone with the steel pen to create varied thickness. The result of this was an
engraving-like grace in tapering thickness letters, which would in turn, and much later,
lead to "pen-manship", the peculiar and almost universally taught methods of writing
using a fountain pen with wet ink that was practised in the United States in the 1850-1940
Around 1638, the style of Ronde had developed into what is seen below. Notice upward
rotation of the c and s.
More immediately, French lettering would be an influence on hand-set type styles, since
the pen-lettering was copied by engravers. an the engravers would ultimately cut new
fonts of type to be used with the movable type. In the Lettre italienne bastarde below, the
French changed the Italian script upon which this is based. It includes elaborate flourishes
that almost go off the page.
THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET, TYPES, AND FONTS / Index / back / next
Old Style and the Older Style of William Morris
Around the 1830's, there wer two kinds of type development. One was based on the
Roman inscriptions, and any variation on Roman became known as "Old-style". This was
to separate newer types of the time from other Roman fonts that had gradually been
developed from Roman and other humanist hands in peculiar combinations. So old style
was used to explain a return to the less vertical, well-proportioned letters of th antiquity.
The other kind of type that was popular was based on an extremely upright and vertical
type that was loosely based on changes in the script and on French and Spanish writing
masters, but became known as modern. Both kinds of type, developed by excellent
engravers, tried to be part of the post-industrial world by using photographic studies to
plan their variations.
There was, however, another kind of developemnt that returned the look to gothic in the
sense of the texture of the page. In the English Arts and Crafts Movement, Richard
Morris is the name closely associated with the revival of all crafts from the medieval
period of history. While the industrial and mechanical age had made possible machine
production of items like clothing, here was someone advocating a return to hand coloring
of cloth and hand weaving of cloth. Hand methods were better, and a better way of life.
His uses of type use a heavy serif at the base of letters, and a close spacing that makes a
page remind one of blakc-face Gothic from the times of Gutenberg at least.
The story of Robin Hood, printed by Morris, takes on a new kind of antique look, as the
book illustrators of the time and writers and typesetters all contributed to make works of
art that were expensive, inefficient in the means and methods of production, and gave an
indication of the return of some literary activities to the business and pleasures of the
wealthy. Victorian ideas of special art for the upper class and utility for the rest of the
world established that highly mechanized type would become the look for business and
for everyone, but that luxury art items were for the wealthy and required a sort of
honorary aesthetic nostalgia.
THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET, TYPES, AND FONTS / Index / back / next
Modern Letters of the Greek and Egyptian Form
The upper part of the sample on this page is called fat-face, and it was modern n the sense
that it wasn't a text type but a display font. The influence was still present in advertising
signs in the 1930's in the United States. It is made nby exaggerating the thin parts of
letters by making them thinner, and the thick parts by making them thicker.
The middle sample is based on fat-face and also on the development of Egyptian
archeology, which eventually would lead to the finding of Tut's tomb and all of its
treasures, which would make everyone crazy about emulating an ancient culture. But in
the 1800's the Egyptian interest was in architectural heaviness. Egyptian letters do not
seem to care about the Roman originals, and distort them, with shapes similar to obilisks
or tombs, and heavy serifs.
The last face on this sample is a revival of Greek letters, also meant to eliminate the thick
and thin in favor of the thick and dense, and at the same time, dropping the serif entirely.
As a display font, this made an interesting innovation in the 1800's. But sans serif fonts
would become the norm in modern-looking fonts used for text in the 20th century. This,
then, becomes the model for modern types.
Modern Types for Text
Furura is a type of the future since it is such a big change. Perhaps the single most
successful type change of the 20th Century was the widespread use of Helvetica for text
in advertising, which is to say a sans-serif type used as if it were as legible as a Roman
face. The success of Helvetica depends directly ofn developments in the 1920-1940
period when a san-serif was developed that could be used for text amd not just for
The top sample is Futura, and the bottom sample is an Egyptian font using no tapers or
thin and thicks. In both types, there is a clear sense that instead of letters looking different
from each other, they look like they all belong to a same class. Design has made each
letter as important as every other letter. If you think about it, this makes reading a sort of
word-processing that a reader does as they scan a page smoothly.
Pens and Calligraphy
During early writing experiments, there was a problem with materials.
An ink could easily be made of berry juice or the soot from a fire, and
for a pen, a stick could be flattened to a chisel edge, but as more
writing was done, some other methods were tried. One was to scratch
words into wax, or into clay tablets. If not fired in an oven, the clay
would wash away. In order to make some forms of writing more
permanent, attempts to write on monuments made of stone resulted
in the carving of te famous Roman initial letters. If carving letters in
stone seems like an interesting idea for a project, prepare for hard
work over a long period of time.
Most lettering or writing was done on paper, or its predecessor, the drided
animal skin. Most pens were cut from reeds, like the tall grasses found by
the river bank. Cutting a pen is not difficult. The hollow reed was sliced at
about a thirty degree angle. Then the reed was shaped to a point from
above, and a split was made in the longitudinal center. Then refinements
were made to the sides. Since the pen was hollow, it held ink in the tubular
center, that, when applied to paper, would flow down the slit. A refinement
was to make the edge a short, flat point called a chisel edge, and made
normal writing a combination of thin and thick lines.
Today's markers or pencils are an improvement because there will be no
messy clean-up. But to emulate a scribe with a pen, hold your writing tool
at a 45 degree angle off the surface of the paper. Now also angle the tool so
that it forms, from above, a 17 degree angle to the side. From above,
someone looking down at you would think you were going to write
crookedly. But that is the natural position for the hand when writing on
paper with a pen.
The early attempts at writing Roman capitals with a pen required multiple
strokes to make a thick vertical or and even thicker curve. To trace a letter
several times to make it thicker means that writing in built-up letters was
slow. So cursive styles were soon developed. Cursive styles, like
handwriting of today, had ligatures carrying the line from letter to letter.
Letters were slanted. But most important, style of lettering became a form
of expression. Styles became suited to the culture of the time.
As a general principle, strokes were used to make letters, and as the hand
moved from left to right across the page, letters were formed from circular
strokes, vertical strokes, and diagonals. So-called one-stroke letters are not
really made of one stroke. For instance, a lower case C would be made of
one curving stroke down and to the right, but the very top is completed by
adding a second stroke at the top going down to the right. A lower case S is
made by making a patial arc at the top, and arc at the bottom, and then a
double curve connecting the upper left to the lower right. On the other
hand, a W is made by five distinct strokes none of which were overlapped
THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET, TYPES, AND FONTS / Index / back / next
Typesetting by Hand
When setting type by hand could be done with movable type, the influence
of the printed page became enormous. What was good before was the elite
handwriting of official scribes, working on relatively few documents of
high quality. Only the wealthy had books, and other documents of an
everyday character were constantly limited in audience and quality. The
biggest immediate influence was that hand set type provided superb
designs of what seemed to be perfect designs to a great number of people.
Movable type would have other ramifications, including its limits. In
general terms, instead of writing masters producing the small number of
the best designs for a small, local audience, a few printing masters
produced a few great designs for a big audience. Focus was not on every
king or duke having a writing master, but on every small city having a
foundry for type and a press to print upon. The widespread exchange of
ideas caused excitement as many literate people could have freedom to
read and treasure well-designed books, art and ideas.
The method of using had-set type soon became quite standardized. A
foundry in Rome would have a master engraver produce a master set of
letters, from which a number of copies were cast in lead. These letters were
then the raw material.
The composer would look at a piece of text, and laboriously begin to take
each needed letter out of a box and set down a letter at a time. Soon a word
was finished. A space was added, and more letters were composed until
another word was finished, and finally a line. A pieces of metal called a
lead was placed down horizontally, and then a new line was
After the entire text of a page was finished, these letters were locked into
place on a press. Ink was applied with a roller, paper was laid on top, and
the entire business was pressed in a press. The printer printed all the pages
needed, one at a time. When the job was done, the type was cleaned and
sorted, and the next page could be printed. This was one of the advantages
of movable type, as it could be recycled without any loss of quality, and a
sort of factory could be created which was more efficient than even a
group of monks working in a monastery to produce books.
The foundry in Rome that cast the font would sometimes pass the font on
to other cities, and sometimes a printer would get another master's font
back in return to use in addition to the Roman foundry's font. As fonts
could be engraved from a writing mster's best ideas, design was improved
an made more accessible.
What became of the writing master? At first and for some time, the
writing master's job was safe since some thing were printed and others
were hand-written. These masters eventually became the designers of
fonts. A great deal of specializatiion came about in the printing idndustry,
as the jobs of setting type, composing pages, proofing type before printing,
printing type, and binding the pages all were skills in the divided
workplace. But eventually the large number of writing scribes was
There were no successful typesetting machines until the 20th Century, and
even until 1960, many printing jobs were not computerized. But when jobs
were computerized, the setting of type by hand was almost non-existent,
composing by hand was almost non-existent, and mechanization was
THE HISTORY OF THE ALPHABET, TYPES, AND FONTS Index / back /
When the movable type was first used, nothing was standard, and as
it continued in use, many skills of the many people involved arrived
at certain standards of measurement. Names for things were also
standardized, so the vocabulary of typesetting is one that has, in part,
survived. From the days of handset type come many of the terms
describing fonts. Even if we use a word-processor on which to type,
we use these terms: font, style, size of type, leading, centered, flush
left, and so on.
Look at old pieces of lead type used in handsetting.. On the back is a little
nick or indentation that helped the setter know which side of the type was
up. Word-processors do not use nicks, and so that is one term that did not
Even on the top and bottom of old pieces of type, there is a little space
above and below a capital letter. This means that even if the type is called
12 point, the capital letter is not actually 12 points from top to bottom On a
piece of type, each letter has a little space to the left and right. This is true
today so that letters on a word processor do not bump into each other, and
it was an actual enlargement of the lead type built into it in a phycsical
way. This is what we consider standard letter-spacing today.
A typesetter would know easily that the capital letter is wider than a lower
case letter, but also that some upper case letters are wider than other
upper case letters. But type has a uniformity, within a font, of size and that
is in the vertical dimension. Even upper case and lower case of a 12 point
type are the same, simply because the lead type pieces have the same
When you want to write a new paragraph on a word processor, you indent.
When you want a space between words, you simply hit another spacebar
and go on. But the hand typesetter did not. They put in a special type high
square of lead for an indentation for paragraphs, This was called the EM
quad. If they wanted to separate a word, they put in a lead piece with a
reelationship to the quad, usually a 1/4 or a 1/3 width of the quad, called
respectively, a three em or a four em.
Spaces between lines of handset type were called leads because a lead strip
was locked in under the type. Today we call this leading also, even if we
don't use lead strips. We put in additional leading of three points or four
To summarize the measurements of type, the width of letters is not
uniform for every letter, but lines are set to a certain horizontal measure,
called line length. Line length is measured in picas. Vertical measurements
are the same for each letter in a font, and are measured in points. Since
there are 72 points in an inch, it is roughly true to say that 36 point type is
about one half inch high. The X height of a letter is the vertical measure of,
for instance, a lower case a, and it goes from the baseline to somewhere
near the middle of the vertical height. A capital rests on the baseline and
goes up to the ascender line. A lower case y goes down to the descender
If normal leading is used, nothing special is written, but when an extra
space is used, leading is described in terms of the total of the vertical
height of the type plus the height of the leading. The description 12/15
means that each line is 15 points in vertical measurements, made up of the
12 point letter and its three addition leading points. 12/15 is read "Twelve
While the measure of vertical height is done in points, it is also referred to
as depth in the page. Each line is described as having a depth of, say, 13
points. Lines have horizontal measurements, too. The horizontal
measurement is called the length of a line. Line length is always measured
in picas. Between the line length and the depth of a line, the vocabulary
describes a limit on how many words could possibly exist in a given space.
Many people used to calculate how much copy would fit on a page, since it
took too long to set up all the type by hand, just to find out how much
would fit. You could calculate it for a piece of paper arranged in the
landscape style in the method described in the following sentences. Don't
dismay if you get lost. If you had a piece of paper that was 8 1/2 by 11
inches, you could actually determine how many words could fit on the page
by counting the number of lines that would fit in a vertical way, and the
number of characters that would fit in a horizontal way. If line depth is 24
points for each line, becasue the type size is 20 points and four points of
leading are used, you can get about 25 lines on a page. If you found that
you can get 1 point 2 characters in eaach pica of length, you find that your
page with a total lenght of 132 picas has a possibility of fitting 110
characters. If your writing style averages about 14 characters per word,
you can get only about 7 and 1/2 words on a line. Multiplying the 7.5 by
the 25 lines you get a resulting 187 words on that page. If you want blank
margins, you would get even fewer words.
Just as in the days when movable type was first used and some
handwriting with pen survived, today there are remnants of the old days of
handsetting type. There are some artist/artisans who practice handsetting.
There are some businesses that use composition machines that set type
photographically. And there are some printers that are totally automatic
and computerized. Even though handsetting is relatively rare, type terms
and measurements have survived and are still in common use. You may
also reflect that printing on a screen of a computer is another new way of
presenting information to a wide audience. I wonder if there will be pixels
in the future? I wonder how many pixels are in an inch?