The imitation of writing

Gutenberg's type case

To ensure that his business was a success, Gutenberg started out by imitating a form that his potential customers were familiar with – the manuscript. This forced him to create type for more than just the 26 letters of the alphabet (in fact, he made 299 separate characters!). For example, he took the abbreviations used by scribes (letters with accent-like symbols over them), and turned them into full-fledged characters. But just using these abbreviations was still not enough to make his printed lines all the same length, as they are in manuscripts, and so Gutenberg also created ligatures – two letters stuck together to make a new letter-shape – to provide greater flexibility. Today, we can still find some of these ligatures on our modern keyboards, including œ, æ, fi, fl, etc.).

We don't know how the various characters were stored to allow them to be accessed easily, but it can't have been easy, given how many there were. By the 18th century, a printer's type case contained only a third as many characters as Gutenberg had.

Type cases in the 16th and 18th centuries

By Claude Garamont's time, typography was progressively moving away from imitating handwriting, and the type case – a wooden storage unit where lead characters used for setting texts were kept – had space for only about a hundred characters. There were compartments for ligatures, punctuations signs, spaces of different widths and, for printing French, accented letters. Capital and small letters were kept in separate parts of the case, which is why we refer to them today as "uppercase" and "lowercase" letters. Since small letters were used more often, they were stored in the lower case, closer to the typesetter.
By the 18th century, type cases had only 115 compartments, whose size and position were determined by the frequency that each letter was used. Different countries adopted different type case arrangements based on the specificities of their language; for example, English-language presses had no need for accented characters. The printing press helped to standardise spelling conventions, and the frequency of certain letters increased based on these conventions. In France, for example, capital letters are only used at the beginning of sentences and for proper names, whereas in Germany every noun is capitalised, and thus a German type case would have larger compartments for uppercase letters.

The typewriter

Long before the modern printer, the typewriter made the production of texts something that was available to all. Nevertheless, its small size meant that the number of available characters had to be reduced to the absolute minimum number of signs needed for the mechanical production of documents.

The decision of how to arrange the keys was the result of a mechanical problem. The arms – or typebars – on the ends of which are the letters that strike the paper, are traditionally arranged in a fan. Originally, two adjacent typebars would become jammed if they were hit too quickly in succession. Thus, the keys were organized so that frequently-used letters were not near each other. The frequency of letters used in a given language is also an important factor, but with different consequences.

The computer keyboard

When the computer keyboard came along, force of habit with typewriters made it impossible to rethink the organisation of the keys, despite numerous attempts to rationalise the layout and minimise finger movements.

Nevertheless, the computer is infinitely more versatile than the typewriter, and users have access to an extremely large number of characters from a keyboard that is almost the same size as its predecessor. An internationally distributed digital font can now contain up to 65,536 characters, that is to say every signs of every script used in the world.

Teaching guide n°2


Secondary school: themes « Art, techniques, expression »


Art, art history, technology, sciences

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Activity 1

Roll over the image with your mouse and try to find the ligatures in this page from the Gutenberg Bible.

Activity 2

The type case game.

Activity 3