So there’s this entrepreneur who has a great idea.  He works on it for years, up to the point where it will take serious money to give it a full-scale trial.  He goes to a venture-capitalist and borrows some money.  Finally he’s ready to show the world the fruits of his labors.  But just as his product hits the market, his backer takes him to court, demanding not only his money back, but the rights and everything that’s been built with his money.

Sadly, but predictably, the moneyman wins.  The entrepreneur is put out of business, while his backer goes on to use his product for years.

Sound familiar?  Sound like a typical Silicon Valley case of the guy with the big bucks stealing the next Killer App?

Well, it’s exactly that kind of story, but it didn’t happen in Silicon Valley.  It happened in Mainz.  And it didn’t happen last week or even last year.  In fact, it happened in 1456.

The entrepreneur’s name was Johannes Gensfleisch (Gooseflesh).  We know him better as Johannes Gutenberg.  And his Killer App was the printing press using movable lead type.  Gutenberg had barely gotten his bible onto the market when he was sued by his backer, Johann Fust.  Fust won the suit, got the shop, the press, and all the type.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Except, of course, that printing press.

That became the hot product of the day.  An English cloth merchant by the name of William Caxton, based in Bruges, became so fascinated with the new invention that he set up a printing business.  In 1479 he moved back to England and installed his press in one of the shops that were set up right against the walls of Westminster Abbey.  There he published the first book printed in England (and in English), an edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

In Gutenberg and Caxton’s days, most books were hand-written by scribes in that heavy, elaborate script beloved of medieval bibles.  Naturally enough, when they started printing their books, they tried to copy the scriptural style that was already familiar to their readers.  Today, typographers call those fonts Black Letter.

Caxton was a bit of a rich dilettante so the production in his shop was neither large nor profitable.  But he had a foreman named, believe it or not, Wynkyn de Worde.  When Caxton died, de Worde took over the business.  He was no dilettante.  In the course of his life he published around 400 books, in 800 editions.  (He moved his shop to Fleet Street, thereby starting a long association between Fleet Street and printing.  There’s a very nice plaque dedicated to him in London, describing him as “The Father of Fleet Street.”)

Meanwhile, while Gutenberg had decided to try to imitate monkish scripts, the Italians took a very different road.  They were virtually surrounded by ancient Roman inscriptions of remarkable clarity and readability.  They carefully examined them and decided the most beautiful and the most legible examples of letters were on Trajan’s column.  So that became their basis for generations of fonts.  (Besides, they genuinely hated the German fonts, so they called them “Gothic,” meaning barbaric.  They weren’t very fond of German church architecture, either, so they called that “Gothic,” too.  As do we.)

The race was on.  Over the centuries, more and more type designers added their ideas of what a perfect font would look like.  Today, if you want to change the font of some document on your computer, you will probably find yourself confronted with a massive selection, most of them boasting names that give you absolutely no clue to what the font actually looks like or where it might be used.  Names like Baskerville (always makes me think of Conan Doyle), or Garamond, Goudy, or, God help us, Zapf.

Much to my surprise, these are all named after real people.  It was John Baskerville, and Claude Garamond, and Frederic Goudy, and even Hermann Zapf.  They all designed type faces, although they didn’t usually name them after themselves.  In fact, many of the fonts that carry their names bear only a passing resemblance to their actual work.

And a word about their actual work.

Most of us, as we scan through a list of fonts, are simply looking for something that more or less fits our text.  Details concern us far less than the general impression a font has.  But type designers are a very different breed.  These are people who have, all of their lives, been fascinated by the tiny differences between fonts that make them “warm” or “cold.”  They live in a world of ascenders and descenders and counters.  Of ears and spurs and swashes.  They don’t march to a different drummer: they sit in a back room, obsessed with a microscopic vision all their own.

They are a little bit crazy.

We rarely notice the details of what they do, or care.  But surely our world would be much different without these monomaniacs who have done so much to dress it up.  Gaze at a computer screen, read a book, or look at a street sign, and you are paying them a kind of homage.

It all goes back to Gutenberg, the first type designer.  I doubt if when Gutenberg was designing his type (25 characters – no ‘J’ then), he intended anything more than to make books more quickly, but in the end he did far more than that.  There is a simple quote that I think is his best epitaph:

With twenty-five lead soldiers, he conquered the world.

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