We’re now more glued to our laptops than ever, and most of us use software like Word like it’s second nature. By this token, we should already know some common font facts, but sadly their origin stories have been lost to time.
Fun Facts About Font History
The word ‘font’ comes from the fact that they originated from foundries – factories that produce metal castings. Early typefaces were made of metal and used on printing presses. To this day, font designers are still called ‘foundries’.
Upper Case, Lower Case: We all know that these refer to capital letters and small letters, but its roots come from the days of printing using linotype – a giant typewriter-like machine that uses blocks of metal letters which were arranged by hand. When not in use, the blocks of letters were kept in a case; the capital letters were on the top of the case, and the rest were at the bottom.
Point size: Thanks to digital fonts, we can randomly choose font sizes to our liking, whether it’s 6, 16, or 166. Before digitisation, fonts had set point sizes like 12, 18, 72, etc. This is because the points referred to the actual height of the character block on a linotype, with 72 points to an inch. Throughout history the actual size differed based on what ‘inch’ measurement was used – the UK and continental Europe had different lengths for an ‘inch’. A ‘pica’ refers to 12 points (a common default size which also transferred to digital fonts).
Leading: Most people don’t use this term, but it refers to the line spacing – you’re probably more familiar with ‘Single’, ‘1.15’ or ‘Double’. The word ‘leading’ refers to the size of the strips of metal (made of lead) used to create the space between two lines. Again, this dates back to the linotype, the great-granddaddy of word processing.
Italics: We all know that we emphasise words by using italics, but did you know that its origin was actually credited to an Italian? Aldus Manutius used italics in his press in Venice in 1500 to print the text of small, easily carried edition of popular books (kind of like today’s paperback) to replace the hand-written manuscript.
Did you know?
- The word ‘stereotype‘ originated in the printing press, and refers to a metal plate that’s embossed with a collection of texts meant to print one page. Rather than using multiple, moving letters, the ‘stereotype’ is a single solid unit (‘stereo’ in Greek means firm or solid). Also, the synonym ‘cliché‘ is onomatopoeic, alluding to the noise of the metal striking metal to lock the plates in place.
- Steve Jobs made the first digital fonts. After he dropped out of college, he took calligraphy classes which inspired him to create typefaces for his personal computer line, the Macintosh. The fonts are named after Jobs’ favourite cities, including Chicago, Geneva, and Venice.
- Gill Sans is a popular font, created by Arthur Eric Rowton Gill. However, his memoirs reveal that he’s quite the sexual deviant. There were extramarital affairs, incest, and bestiality. Ironically, he was a man of religion.