The Birth of Digital Type
ibnm intertype lumitype Digiset

Fonts for Typewriters

In 1961 IBM revolutionized the design of typewriters from the traditional moving carriage struck by stationary individual letter keys to a font ball or "a type element that rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking. The type element could be easily changed so as to print different fonts in the same document. The Selectric also replaced the traditional typewriter's moving carriage with a paper roller ("platen") that stayed in position while the typeball and ribbon mechanism moved from side to side. 1

See the Selectric in action here.


Hot Type to Cold Fonts

(From Robin Dodd's Gutenberg to Open Type) "The first generation of phototypesetting devices were adaptations of the hot-metal machines, converting metal matrices to film negatives. Intertype's first Fototypesetter was in 1956. It was the first photo typesetting machine and was based upon the standard Intertype machine, replacing the brass type matrices with small film negatives and instead of casting, used these to expose photographic paper.

"Instead of lead slugs, the Intertype which was a Linotype machine had replaced them with small film negatives and proceeded to set type as you would imagine the bastardization of a lead type and photo type machine only could. There are many reasons Cold Type caught on and it became the standard some time after that period till digital typesetting machines like the Alphatype came into their own. It wasn't until the release of the first MacIntosh in 1984 when Cold Type was eclipsed by desktop publishing." 2

At the same time, another generation of machines was launched. These were electromechanical, using valves, relays and other electronic devices. One of the first was the Lumitype/Photon machine. The machine had a master film matrix in the form of revolving discs. A light source projected type images onto a light-sensitive photographic paper to produce type.

Adrian Frutiger's Univers was one of the first commercially successful fonts that was initially designed for use on Photon photocomposition machines. 3


Dr. Hell

In 1966, German inventor Dr. Ing. Rudolf Hell (1901-2002) introduced the Digiset—the first typesetting machine that works with digitally assembled (bitmap) typefaces. This machine is the first of the third generation of photocomposition systems, which are the first true digital systems. The typefaces are created on a CRT (cathode ray tube and the image is projected onto film or photosensitive paper using a set of lenses. The Digiset can image 1000 characters per second. 3

"DigiGrotesk, the first digital type font, was designed in 1968 by the Hell Design Studio. It was available in seven weights from light to bold. The forms of DigiGrotesk N were strongly influenced by Neuzeit Grotesk, while those of DigiGrotesk S were based more on the sans serif fonts of the Bodoni-Clarendon type, like Akzidenz Grotesk, Univers or Futura. Hermann Zapf and Gerard Unger designed original fonts specifically for Hell's high quality, high production machines." 4

bit to line

Images were not generated by photographs of letters; instead mathematical formulas electronically generated the images on the screen. These were the first electronic fonts." 5


Bitmap fonts

(From "The first generation of technology resulted in bitmap fonts— comparable to superimposing a sheet of graph paper over a drawn letter and coloring in the boxes (pixels) that fell within the outline of that letter.

Bitmapped fonts had the advantage that they are faster and easier to use in computer code and could be carefully edited for quality and readability. They also had, however, the disadvantage of requiring a separate font for each size and resolution, thereby taking up a relatively large amount of memory. 3


Also known as a "raster font," bitmap fonts are built from dots or pixels representing the image of each glyph in each face and size. The first bit map fonts were crude in appearance. Some type designers worked on improving the look while others created fonts that embraced the crudeness.bitmap

Vector Fonts

Outline fonts (also called vector fonts) use Bézier curves, drawing instructions and mathematical formulae to describe each glyph, which make the character outlines scalable to any size.

Outline fonts are smaller in memory size and faster to process. Analog drawings of letters are plotted with a mouse or stylus to create an outline representation (made up of curves and straight lines). These digitized outlines are made into a font that is installed in a computer operating system.

More Than You Want to Know About Outline Fonts
postscript6 true_type6

Outline fonts / Bezier Curves

The next, generation of digital font technology provided for scalable outline fonts. They are smaller in memory size and faster to process. Analog drawings of letters are plotted with a mouse or stylus to create an outline representation (made up of curves and straight lines). These digitized outlines are made into a font that is installed in a computer operating system.4

Outline fonts use Bézier curves
(shown above) for drawing instructions and mathematical formulas to describe each glyph, which make the character outlines scalable to any size. In object-oriented software programs, a Bézier curve is one whose shape is defined by anchor points set along its arc. 4

unger hoallander8

Ikarus, 1979

Dr Peter Karow, used spline algorithms to define type at URW in Hamburg, Germany in 1979, using their software IKARUS. Ikarus enables a human operator to input the features of a complex shape with curves, corners and straight lines (e.g. a letter of the alphabet) to a computer which stores it as a mathematical representation, for all intents and purposes independent of the size of the original artwork and of the final output.

Ikarus uses a spline model of the outline shape of each character within a typeface to give a fully scalable representation. The curve segments are essentially circle arcs, with tangent continuity maintained at joins. It is a very simple format to manually mark up. Being a vector/curve based format, any rendering resolution can be attained (by rasterisation) with equal accuracy from one relatively small set of data. The Ikarus coordinates for a shape all fall on the outline of that shape (as opposed to Bézier curves where 'control' points can be inside or outside the outline). 7

"The first digital fonts were designed on the Ikarus system---it is said that the first font designed on the Ikarus system was Marconi in 1975---a cooperation of Rudolf Hell (the engineer) and Hermann Zapf."

Left, Gerhard Unger's Hollander, 1983, produced with an improved Digiset which replaced the CRT and pixel method with laser beams (higher resolution) and the Ikarus program which defined the outlines of the letters in curves.

Post Script Language , 1985

"Post Script Language is a computer language designed to describe any printed event on a page. It was an independent system that allowed the transfer of vector art to any output printing device. It can be linked to any operating system and the quality of the final output was determined by the printer.

Type I fonts consisted of 2 parts: a set of fixed -size bitmap fonts files for screen display (bit map suitcase file) and a Postscript fonts file to be used by the output devices (PostScript font file). Files made in this format are limited to 256 characters in a font. To obtain advanced characters such as small caps, ligatures, fractions, etc one is required to buy an "expert" set.

The first versions needed to have several sizes installed to appear sharp on screen, (if not installed the fonts looked jaggy and rough). The release of Adobe Type Manager allowed for the type to be scaled to infinite sizes, it was a necessity until Mac OS9.

True Type (Late 1980's)

This rival system to Post Script also used a scalable curve system—this time Bézier splines composed of quadratic curves. True Type fonts provided information for screen display and the output device in a single file. It could hold sufficient information for plain, italic, bold and bold italic. True Type fonts only require one suitcase and are often the default system font for macs and pcs.

Because True Type fonts have more points for screen hinting, they appear sharper on screen than Post Script fonts. That is why some of the True Type fonts, such as Matthew Carter's Verdana and Georgia are so well suited to web page design. Hopefully you are reading copy in Verdana because I have asked your computer to render Verdana as the face for this text.

laser writer "The LaserWriter, a laser printer with a built-in PostScript interpreter, was introduced by Apple in 1985. It was one of the first laser printers available to the mass market.

Figure 1a. An outline that hasn't been grid-fitted. Note how poorly the outline corresponds to the pixel pattern, and the awkwardness of the bitmapped M.
Figure 1b. The same outline grid-fitted. Now the outline has been adjusted to fit snugly around each pixel, ensuring that the correct pixels are turned on.


A small selection of Adobe's Myriad demonstrating the possibilities of Multiple Master technology, allowing for changes in weight and width.

Font Hinting

A hint is a mathematical instruction added to the font to distort a character's outline at particular sizes.

At low resolutions, with few pixels available to describe the character shapes, features such as stem weights, crossbar widths and serif details can become irregular, inconsistent or even missed completely. These irregularities detract substantially from the legibility and overall attractiveness of a text setting.

To increase legibility type designers use hinting, a method of defining exactly which pixels are turned on in order to create the best possible character bitmap shape at small sizes and low resolutions. Since it is a glyph's outline that determines which pixels will constitute a character bitmap at a given size, it is often necessary to modify the outline to create a good bitmap image; in effect modifying the outline until the desired combination of pixels is turned on.

1991 Multiple Master Fonts

Type I fonts that carry more than one digital outline. Each character has a pair of outlines that represent each end of a deign axis. A font may contain axes for weight, width, style or size. or all four together. this made it possible for the designer to customize fonts by modifying weights and widths with greater variety than can be found in standard fonts.



The bitmap, outline, and metric data are combined into a single, cross-platform file in an OpenType font, simplifying font management.

open clear_type

Open Type, 1997

Open Type is a cross-platform font useable on Macs and PC's. It utilizes Unicode encoding which allows for 65,000 characters in a single font which can accommodate every language in the world plus all of the small caps, and additional sets of characters to make a complete font, Ligatures, swash, true small caps, Old-style figures, Fractions and special characters, cyrillic and Greek.

OpenType fonts can be distinguished by the word "Pro." Adobe Pro sets include small caps, swash and alternative characters, ligatures, ordinal numbers and letters, ornaments, fractions and Greek and Cyrillic characters.


OpenType fonts can be distinguished by the word "Pro." Adobe Pro sets include small caps, swash and alternative characters, ligatures, ordinal numbers and letters, ornaments, fractions and Greek and Cyrillic characters.


The above graphic demonstrates what OpenType can hold within one font. Go see the original graphic on


ClearType and CoolType 2000

ClearType and CoolType are new sub-pixel font rendering technologies developed by Microsoft and Adobe respectively. Different color values at the sub-pixel level are used (instead of simply tints of the font color) to give a crisper image of the character. This technology is built in to the current version of Adobe Acrobat and Microsoft's e-book Reader, but it only works on LCD displays.

Click this link for a good explanation and examples of sub-pixel rendering.


IBM Selectric typewriter




Image source Link

James Felici,"The Complete Manual of Typography, A Guide to Setting Perfect Type"
Adobe Press, 2003.

Ilene Strizver. A Brief History of Digital Type,

"Digital Typography: A Primer"
Shared by permission of
Professor Keith Chi-hang Tam
School of Design
Hong Kong Polytechnic University
Hung Hom, Kowloon
Hong Kong

Ikarus, Wikipedia

Gerard Unger website.

Luc Devroye, Ikarus

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