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A (Brief) History of Typography

Typographic History Head

Some of the earliest forms of printing were done from molded clay or carved wooden blocks, using a technique similar to the wood -engraving process employed in producing drawings for reproduction. The text which was carved on them became the printing plate from which the printed page was produced

Gutenberg Image


It wasn’t until the middle of the 15th century that “movable” type was invented. The German printer Johannes Gutenberg first used his printing press in 1448 and by 1462 his invention had spread throughout Europe. Gutenberg personally never profited from his innovation.

The Gutenberg press first used wooden type and, later metal movable (also called “foundry”) type to cast each character into precise sizes from an alloy of lead, tin and antimony. The block of metal that carried the raised image was called the “body” and the raised image to which ink was applied was called the “face.” Additionally, the capital and lowercase letters were each stored in separate “cases,” or drawers. The capitals were located in the upper case, and I’m sure you can figure out where the lowercase letters were stored. These are the obvious roots of the terminology of type still in use today.

Mergenthaler Image


From the 1600s to the late 1800s, there were few innovations that changed how type was applied to the printed page. The next major step was made by Ottmar Mergenthaler’s Linotype in 1889. This technology allowed typesetters to set entire lines of type using Linotype's 90-character keyboard. Letter molds were retrieved from where they were stored and assembled into row molds, or "matrices." Then molten lead was poured into those matrices and the result was one complete line of type. After printing, these bars could be melted and the metal reused.

Linotype Machine

Placeholder Image

The Digital Revolution

The next major step debuted nearly 400 years after Gutenberg.The year 1944 heralded the introduction of photocomposition, but it wasn’t until the early 1950s that it really caught on. This technology used film disks with each letter of the alphabet in different type styles projected onto photosensitve paper. The disks were spun for the different letters and were moved closer to or farther away from a lens to produce the different type sizes. This technology created new opportunities for designers, including the creative overlapping and distortion of characters.

The digital revolution really began with large, expensive, computer-based typesetting equipment in the early 1970s. Each of the different systems had its own command language, and individual font formats, but they each had one common limitation: they didn’t handle graphics well.

It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the PostScript page-description language entered the scene and along with it the current WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) typesetting era.

The advantage of PostScript was that it incorporated the ability to insert and modify images and employ unified output devices and (to a great degree) platforms.

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