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A Brief History of Type


 

The Origin of the Typographic Form

We are well accustomed to the written word as a primary method of communication in our culture. Its primary elements, the characters of the modern alphabet, were once quite literal symbols of everyday objects which were gradually abstracted to the letters of the alphabet.

Pictograms, ideograms, and phonograms

While cave paintings, dating as far back as 20,000 B.C. are the first evidence of recorded pictures, true written communication is thought to have been developed some 17,000 years later by the Summerians, around 3500 B.C.

They are known to have recorded stories and preserved records using simple drawings of everyday objects, called pictograms.

Sumarian pictogram for "mountains"

As civilizations become more advanced, they experienced a need to communicate more complex concepts. By 3100 B.C., Egyptian hieroglyphics incorporated symbols representing thoughts or ideas, called ideograms, allowing for the expression of more abstract concepts than the more literal pictograms. A symbol for an ox could mean food, for example, or the symbol of a setting sun combined with the symbol for a man could communicate old age or death.


Egyptian ideogram for "weeping"

The Roman numerals we use today are considered to contain ideograms:
I, II, and III representing fingers of the hand, V the open hand, and IV the open hand minus one finger.

By 1600 B.C., the Phoenicians had developed symbols for spoken sounds, called phonograms. For example, their symbol for ox, which they called aleph, was used to represent the spoken sound “A” and beth, their symbol for house, represented the sound “B”. In addition to sounds, phonograms could also represent words.

Phoenician "aleph"

Today, our own alphabet contains many such phonograms:
% for percent, ? for question, and $ for dollars.

The alphabet

It is the Phoenicians who are generally credited with developing the first true alphabet a set of symbols representing spoken sounds, that could be combined to represent spoken language.

Primarily a seafaring merchant society, they traded with many cultures, spreading their alphabet throughout the Western world. Around 1,000 B.C., the Phoenician alphabet was adapted by the Greeks, who developed the art of handwriting in several styles. The word “alphabet” comes from the first two Greek letters alpha and beta.

Pictograms evolved into the letters of the alphabet
Early symbol for "ox" Phoenician "aleph" Greek "A" Roman "A"

Several hundred years later, the Romans used the Greek alphabet as the basis for the uppercase alphabet that we know today. They refined the art of handwriting, fashioning several distinctive styles of lettering which they used for different purposes. They scribed a rigid, formal script for important manuscripts and official documents and a quicker, more informal style for letters and routine types of writing. By A.D. 100, the Romans had developed a flourishing book industry and, as Roman handwriting continued to evolve, lower case letters and rough forms of punctuation were gradually added.

Over the next 1,000 years, manuscript preparation developed into a specialized, highly regarded craft and came to be practiced chiefly in monasteries. Books were objects of immense value, and contained elaborate ornamentation. Illuminated, or illustrated, initials were painstakingly designed and incorporated into exactingly rendered text. It was not uncommon for a monk to devote an entire lifetime to the completion of a single manuscript.

Moveable type and printing

The fifteenth century was a pivotal time for written communication. Manuscripts were treasured possessions which rarely appeared outside monasteries or the courts of royalty. The written word was reserved for the privileged few. In fact, less than one-tenth of the European population could read.

In 1445, in Mainz, Germany, Johann Gutenberg changed the course of the written word. While Gutenberg is often credited with inventing both the printing press and metal type, he, in fact, did neither. Printing had been practiced for several hundred years in China and for at least several decades in Europe. Type had been cast successfully, albeit crudely, several years earlier in the Netherlands. What Johann Gutenberg did do was make these technologies practical.

He perfected a workable system of moveable type, developing an ingenious process employing a separate matrix, or mold, for each alphabet character, from which metal types could be hand-cast in great quantities. These types could then be assembled into a page of text, and imprinted to paper via special inks and a printing press of his own design. For the first time, a technical system of mass production was applied to publishing.

The next 50 years witnessed an explosion of printing throughout Europe and, by the year 1500, more than 10 million copies of nearly 3500 works were printed and distributed. An unprecedented diffusion of technical and social knowledge spread throughout the Western world and the education of the masses had begun.

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