Design History Primer 2: Handwriting to Printed Type

Moving on to the second page of Design History lecture guides by Design History.org which covers the beginnings of writing and how it came to be what we know today.

This page groups the information into five major trends in the history of writing.

1. Early Writing in Clay and Stone
Writing started as humans stopped living nomadic lives and started to settle. They use the Clay Bullae used in Mesopotamia as an accounting tool to record transactions.

As the need to record more than agricultural transactions emerged, Cuneiform provided a way to communicate ideas and concepts with horizontal rows of symbols pressed into clay tablets. The symbols were abstracted from pictograms of animals (for example).

In Egypt, writing and relief carving merged into the Hyeroglyphics that adorned the walls inside pharaohs’ tombs. This system used both rebus and phonetic characters and is thus the first link to an alphabetic system of writing.

Not so far away in ancient Greece, Early Greek was arranged in horizontal rows, and was read switching directions on every other row. It is believed that Greeks borrowed the alphabet from the Phoenicians and added vowels.

And still in the Mediterranean neighborhood, the Romans copied the Greek style. In Early Roman Lapidary they carved letters in stone that were equal in width and did not have serifs. Early on they used dots to divide words.

The serifs originated with the development that lead to Classical Roman Lapidary. It is theorized that the serifs were developed to decrease the possibility of stones splintering at the end of a carved line, as well as to possibly mimic the way the brush strokes produced varying thickness of the letters when the letters were painted on the stone initially as guides.

Special mention in this section goes to Trajan’s Column. The letters in the inscription at its base are considered to display the ultimate results of the development of Latin letterforms. The characters have been studied by type designers for almost 20 centuries and have inspired many spinoff typefaces. Some include reinterpretations by Edward Johnston, Eric Gill and Carol Twombly.

2. Majuscules and Minuscules
During the 1st century AD, Roman Capitals emerged in early attempts to copy the attributes of letters that were originally carved in stone. Roman Capitals were mostly written on vellum paper using a reed that had a flat edge, or a quill nib.

Early Christian works during the 5th century AD show the development of Uncials letterforms, which were taken from the square capitals that were previously carved in stone and also from written majuscules. It was written between 2 guidelines of one uncial — the Roman name for the one-inch measure.

One more century led to the Half Uncials. During the 6th century AD, Half Uncials were written between four guidelines that allowed the development of ascenders and descenders. This newer style was easier and faster to execute.

The Carolingian Minuscule came about during the 8th century (789 — 1100’s). Emperor Charlemagne decreed that the entire Holy Roman Empire use a standard style of writing as a way of uniting his regime. It is believed that the Carolingian Minuscule was developed by the British monk Alcuin of York. His letterforms are based on classic documents from ancient Rome. During the Renaissance (centuries later) the Carolingian handwriting was mistaken for the original Roman style. It was copied and labeled a “Classical” handwriting style. The Alcuin of York founded a school for monks that featured the following standards for clear and legible script:

  1. Uniform spelling
  2. The Carolingian style of well-formed lowercase letters
  3. Capitals to begin a sentence and lowercase to continue
  4. Space between words
  5. Standard punctuation
  6. Division into sentences and paragraphs.

Blackletter: The Gothic Hands
Handwriting styles became more condensed and angular after the death of emperor Charlemagne. To conserve space and materials, word, line, and letter spacing were reduced. Carolingian and Blackletter handwriting were developed in France. Both evolved into variations of regional style. There are 4 basic styles of Blackletter that emerged from 13 to 16th centuries.

  • Textura (formal)
  • Rotunda (formal)
  • Bastarda (semi-formal)
  • Cursive (informal)

3. Renaissance and the Humanist letter : Quill Pen & Compass
Renaissance Humanism arose in Florence, Italy as scholars sought to recapture their lost heritage by re-evaluating the literature of ancient Greece and Rome. Humanism was committed to the idea that ancient Greece and Rome was the peak of human achievement and should be taken as a model by Europeans at the time.

Transcribers used two forms of letters based upon the ancient (or antique) Roman models: The Lettera Antiqua formata (for elaborate manuscripts) and the Lettera Antiqua corsiva (more informal) for scholarly works.

Leon Battista Alberti, believed the circle and the square are the most perfect geometrical forms, and that architecture and the alphabet should use them as their base. He restored the Roman tradition of inscribing letters on facades.

4. Steel Pens & Engraving
George Bickham published The Universal Penman in 1741. It was the considered the ultimate guide to English penmanship. It was also a compilation of broadsides, that focused on a different art, profession, emotion, or human moral. Aside from the handwriting, many of the broadsides are highlighted with engraved vignette illustrations by Bickham. He wrote books that were not only decorative, but also examples of easy-to-read and easy-to-write styles for business clerks and others who required a much writing and record-keeping.

5. Letterforms in Metal : Mechanical Writing Leads to a Cultural Explosion
Johann Gutenberg developed a modular “moveable type” system in about 1450, even though printing had been practiced in Asia for several hundred years and Europeans had been printing type with wooden blocks for about one hundred years. Johann Gutenberg is the commonly accepted inventor of modular moveable type system although different people were working on a system of “automated writing”.

A letter was carved on the end of a steel bar. The is is called the punch. Then a matrix was created when that letterform is struck into copper. Gutenberg was a jeweler by profession and was knowledgeable in metal carving, casting, and knew which metals worked best for each stage of his process. He developed inks that would adhere to metal surfaces.

A clever inventor, Gutenburg was not a very good businessman. He borrowed considerably from Johann Fust. When Gutenberg could not pay his debts, Fust sued and took over the business. Fust then partered with his brother-in-law Peter Schoeffler they produced the bible around 1455. Still to this day it is known as the Gutenberg bible.

Gutenberg did not use Roman style lettering. Instead he used the Blackletter style. He hoped it would replicate handwriting. Scholars believe that Gutenberg designed a font that included 270 characters which used several variations of each letter to add a human factor.

Within 50 years, over one thousand printers established themselves across Europe, and many people tried to establish control of the technology. Professional scribes feared the technology would cost them their livelihoods. Religious and sometimes secular authorities attempted to control the content of what was printed. Some were successful—for hundreds of years books could only be printed by printers who were authorized by the government, or with the approval of the Church in some European countries. These printers would be held responsible instead of the authors for the ideas considered “unwanted” by some. Printers were even executed. In the end most of these restraints eventually fell.

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