The history of Type


What is a Font?

A font is all the letters, numbers, punctuation and other symbols which compose a typeface. Fonts were first developed as cast lead type for printing presses, and were later digitized as typefaces for use on computers.

The first font

The first typeface was designed by Johann Gutenberg, for his movable type press. Books were all hand-lettered at the time, and Gutenberg wanted to create a faster way to produce books that looked hand-lettered. He designed his type in the style of the Gothic blackletter at the time, so that his printed books would look hand-lettered.

As more printing shops opened up, printers began to look at other lettering styles to use as models for typefaces. More thought was put into creating typefaces, and this gave rise to the art of typographic design.

Roman and Italic styles

Nicholas Jenson designed the first true Roman typeface around 1460, which was used for books printed in Italy. This was an upright typeface that was lighter in design compared to the heavy blackletter type of German printing. To this day, upright typefaces are referred to as Roman, or Regular.

In the early 1500’s, Aldus Manutius developed the first Italic typeface with Francesco Griffo, influenced by the popularity of cursive writing. The capitals were still upright, but all lowercase letters were slanted to the right, like cursive writing. The slanted letters took up less space on the page, so books could be smaller in size and therefore less expensive. This style was called Italic, meaning from Italy, but today an italic typeface refers to slanted, or oblique, letters (including capitals).

The measurement of type

In the mid-1700’s, a French printer and typographer named Pierre Fournier le Jeune standardized the system of measuring typefaces. It was referred to as the Pica system of measurement and became widely used in England and America.

Type sizes were (and still are) measured in points. Type was cast in lead, and was sized relative to one inch. The lead pieces for one line of text had to line up evenly along the top and bottom of the pieces. The size of the text is measured from the top-most ascender to the bottom-most descender of all the letters within a typeface. The one inch measurement is divided into 72 points, and the common 12-point size is one pica, or one-sixth of an inch.

The fonts below are all 28 points in size. The top and bottom lines show the outer limits of the ascenders and descenders in the fonts. The fonts shown are Century Gothic, Adobe Caslon Pro, and Edwardian Script ITC.

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