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Apr 10, 2023

Gutenburg shipped the first working printing press around 1450 and typeface was born. Before then most books were hand written, often in blackletter calligraphy. And they were expensive. 
The next few decades saw Nicolas Jensen develop the Roman typeface, Aldus Manutius and Francesco Griffo create the first italic typeface. This represented a period where people were experimenting with making type that would save space.

The 1700s saw the start of a focus on readability. William Caslon created the Old Style typeface in 1734. John Baskerville developed Transitional typefaces in 1757. And Firmin Didot and Giambattista Bodoni created two typefaces that would become the modern family of Serif. Then slab Serif, which we now call Antique, came in 1815 ushering in an era of experimenting with using type for larger formats, suitable for advertisements in various printed materials. These were necessary as more presses were printing more books and made possible by new levels of precision in the metal-casting.

People started experimenting with various forms of typewriters in the mid-1860s and by the 1920s we got Frederic Goudy, the first real full-time type designer. Before him, it was part of a job. After him, it was a job. And we still use some of the typefaces he crafted, like Copperplate Gothic. And we saw an explosion of new fonts like Times New Roman in 1931.

At the time, most typewriters used typefaces on the end of a metal shaft. Hit a kit, the shaft hammers onto a strip of ink and leaves a letter on the page. Kerning, or the space between characters, and letter placement were often there to reduce the chance that those metal hammers jammed. And replacing a font would have meant replacing tons of precision parts. Then came the IBM Selectric typewriter in 1961. Here we saw precision parts that put all those letters on a ball. Hit a key, the ball rotates and presses the ink onto the paper. And the ball could be replaced. A single document could now have multiple fonts without a ton of work.

Xerox exploded that same year with the Xerox 914, one of the most successful products of all time. Now, we could type amazing documents with multiple fonts in the same document quickly - and photocopy them. And some of the numbers on those fancy documents were being spat out by those fancy computers, with their tubes. But as computers became transistorized heading into the 60s, it was only a matter of time before we put fonts on computer screens.

Here, we initially used bitmaps to render letters onto a screen. By bitmap we mean that a series, or an array of pixels on a screen is a map of bits and where each should be displayed on a screen. We used to call these raster fonts, but the drawback was that to make characters bigger, we needed a whole new map of bits. To go to a bigger screen, we probably needed a whole new map of bits. As people thought about things like bold, underline, italics, guess what - also a new file. But through the 50s, transistor counts weren’t nearly high enough to do something different than bitmaps as they rendered very quickly and you know, displays weren’t very high quality so who could tell the difference anyways. 

Whirlwind was the first computer to project real-time graphics on the screen and the characters were simple blocky letters. But as the resolution of screens and the speed of interactivity increased, so did what was possible with drawing glyphs on screens. 

Rudolf Hell was a German, experimenting with using cathode ray tubes to project a CRT image onto paper that was photosensitive and thus print using CRT. He designed a simple font called Digital Grotesk, in 1968. It looked good on the CRT and the paper. And so that font would not only be used to digitize typesetting, loosely based on Neuzeit Book.

And we quickly realized bitmaps weren’t efficient to draw fonts to screen and by 1974 moved to outline, or vector, fonts. Here a Bézier curve was drawn onto the screen using an algorithm that created the character, or glyph using an outline and then filling in the space between. These took up less memory and so drew on the screen faster. Those could be defined in an operating system, and were used not only to draw characters but also by some game designers to draw entire screens of information by defining a character as a block and so taking up less memory to do graphics. 

These were scalable and by 1979 another German, Peter Karow, used spline algorithms wrote Ikarus, software that allowed a person to draw a shape on a screen and rasterize that. Now we could graphically create fonts that were scalable. 

In the meantime, the team at Xerox PARC had been experimenting with different ways to send pages of content to the first laser printers. Bob Sproull and Bill Newman created the Press format for the Star. But this wasn’t incredibly flexible like what Karow would create. John Gaffney who was working with Ivan Sutherland at Evans & Sutherland, had been working with John Warnock on an interpreter that could pull information from a database of graphics. When he went to Xerox, he teamed up with Martin Newell to create J&M, which harnessed the latest chips to process graphics and character type onto printers. As it progressed, they renamed it to Interpress.

Chuck Geschke started the Imaging Sciences Laboratory at Xerox PARC and eventually left Xerox with Warnock to start a company called Adobe in Warnock’s garage, which they named after a creek behind his house. Bill Paxton had worked on “The Mother of All Demos” with Doug Engelbart at Stanford, where he got his PhD and then moved to Xerox PARC. There he worked on bitmap displays, laser printers, and GUIs - and so he joined Adobe as a co-founder in 1983 and worked on the font algorithms and helped ship a page description language, along with Chuck Geschke, Doug Brotz, and Ed Taft. 

Steve Jobs tried to buy Adobe in 1982 for $5 million. But instead they sold him just shy of 20% of the company and got a five-year license for PostScript. This allowed them to focus on making the PostScript language more extensible, and creating the Type 1 fonts. These had 2 parts. One that was a set of bit maps And another that was a font file that could be used to send the font to a device. 

We see this time and time again. The simpler an interface and the more down-market the science gets, the faster we see innovative industries come out of the work done. There were lots of fonts by now. The original 1984 Mac saw Susan Kare work with Jobs and others to ship a bunch of fonts named after cities like Chicago and San Francisco. She would design the fonts on paper and then conjure up the hex (that’s hexadecimal) for graphics and fonts. She would then manually type the hexadecimal notation for each letter of each font. 

Previously, custom fonts were reserved for high end marketing and industrial designers. Apple considered licensing existing fonts but decided to go their own route. She painstakingly created new fonts and gave them the names of towns along train stops around Philadelphia where she grew up. Steve Jobs went for the city approach but insisted they be cool cities. And so the Chicago, Monaco, New York, Cairo, Toronto, Venice, Geneva, and Los Angeles fonts were born - with her personally developing Geneva, Chicago, and Cairo. And she did it in 9 x 7. 

I can still remember the magic of sitting down at a computer with a graphical interface for the first time. I remember opening MacPaint and changing between the fonts, marveling at the typefaces. I’d certainly seen different fonts in books. But never had I made a document and been able to set my own typeface! Not only that they could be in italics, outline, and bold. Those were all her. And she inspired a whole generation of innovation.

Here, we see a clean line from Ivan Sutherland and the pioneering work done at MIT to the University of Utah to Stanford through the oNLine System (or NLS) to Xerox PARC and then to Apple. But with the rise of Windows and other graphical operating systems. As Apple’s 5 year license for PostScript came and went they started developing their own font standard as a competitor to Adobe, which they called TrueType.

Here we saw Times Roman, Courier, and symbols that could replace the PostScript fonts and updating to Geneva, Monaco, and others. They may not have gotten along with Microsoft, but they licensed TrueType to them nonetheless to make sure it was more widely adopted. And in exchange they got a license for TrueImage, which was a page description language that was compatible with PostScript. Given how high resolution screens had gotten it was time for the birth of anti-aliasing. He we could clean up the blocky “jaggies” as the gamers call them. Vertical and horizontal lines in the 8-bit era looked fine but distorted at higher resolutions and so spatial anti-aliasing and then post-processing anti-aliasing was born.

By the 90s, Adobe was looking for the answer to TrueImage. So 1993 brought us PDF, now an international standard in ISO 32000-1:2008. But PDF Reader and other tools were good to Adobe for many years, along with Illustrator and then Photoshop and then the other products in the Adobe portfolio. By this time, even though Steve Jobs was gone, Apple was hard at work on new font technology that resulted in Apple Advanced Typography, or AAT. AAT gave us ligature control, better kerning and the ability to write characters on different axes. 

But even though Jobs was gone, negotiations between Apple and Microsoft broke down to license AAT to Microsoft. They were bitter competitors and Windows 95 wasn’t even out yet. So Microsoft started work on OpenType, their own font standardized language in 1994 and Adobe joined the project to ship the next generation in 1997. And that would evolve into an open standard by the mid-2000s. And once an open standard, sometimes the de facto standard as opposed to those that need to be licensed.

By then the web had become a thing. Early browsers and the wars between them to increment features meant developers had to build and test on potentially 4 or 5 different computers and often be frustrated by the results. So the WC3 began standardizing how a lot of elements worked  in Extensible Markup Language, or XML. Images, layouts, colors, even fonts. SVGs are XML-based vector image. In other words the browser interprets a language that displays the image. That became a way to render

Web Open Format or WOFF 1 was published in 2009 with contributions by Dutch educator Erik van Blokland, Jonathan Kew, and Tal Leming. This built on the CSS font styling rules that had shipped in Internet Explorer 4 and would slowly be added to every browser shipped, including Firefox since 3.6, Chrome since 6.0, Internet Explorer since 9, and Apple’s Safari since 5.1. Then WOFF 2 added Brotli compression to get sizes down and render faster. WOFF has been a part of the W3C open web standard since 2011. 

Out of Apple’s TrueType came TrueType GX, which added variable fonts. Here, a single font file could contain a number or range of variants to the initial font. So a family of fonts could be in a single file. OpenType added variable fonts in 2016, with Apple, Microsoft, and Google all announcing support. And of course the company that had been there since the beginning, Adobe, jumped on board as well. Fewer font files, faster page loads. 

So here we’ve looked at the progression of fonts from the printing press, becoming more efficient to conserve paper, through the advent of the electronic typewriter to the early bitmap fonts for screens to the vectorization led by Adobe into the Mac then Windows. We also see rethinking the font entirely so multiple scripts and character sets and axes can be represented and rendered efficiently. 

I am now converting all my user names into pig Latin for maximum security. Luckily those are character sets that are pretty widely supported. The ability to add color to pig Latin means that OpenType-SVG will allow me add spiffy color to my glyphs. It makes us wonder what’s next for fonts. Maybe being able to design our own, or more to the point, customize those developed by others to make them our own. We didn’t touch on emoji yet. But we’ll just have to save the evolution of character sets and emoji for another day.

In the meantime, let’s think on the fact that fonts are such a big deal because Steve Jobs took a caligraphy class from a Trappist monk named Robert Palladino while enrolled at Reed College. Today we can painstakingly choose just the right font with just the right meaning because Palladino left the monastic life to marry and have a son. He taught jobs about serif and san serif and kerning and the art of typography. 

That style and attention to detail was one aspect of the original Mac that taught the world that computers could have style and grace as well. It’s not hard to imagine if entire computers still only supported one font or even one font per document. Palladino never owned or used a computer though. His influence can be felt through the influence his pupil Jobs had. And it’s actually amazing how many people who had such dramatic impacts on computing never really used one. Because so many smaller evolutions came after them. What evolutions do we see on the horizon today? And how many who put a snippet of code on a service like GitHub may never know the impact they have on so many?