The history of fonts

This page documents how font formats evolved from the early ’80s onwards. The entire graphic arts industry changed dramatically when Adobe developed PostScript and the Macintosh, LaserWriter and PageMaker came to market. Separate pages go into more detail on the history of PostScript or the history of prepress.

The early years

When Adobe launched PostScript in 1984, it supported two different types of fonts: Type 1 and Type 3. Of these two, Type 1 was the more sophisticated format. It supported hinting, a technique to improve the output quality on lower resolution devices or at smaller font sizes and it also supported a more efficient compression algorithm of font data. The Type 3 specs offered some functionality that was not present in Type 1 but it was clearly a less sophisticated format.

Adobe kept the specification for Type 1 fonts for itself. They build an entire library of Type 1 fonts that customers could buy. Every PostScript output device included 36 of these fonts which in those days when fonts were still expensive compensated somewhat for the steep price of PostScript printers.

The specifications of Type 3 fonts were published and soon tools to create Type 3 fonts emerged. Type foundries like MonoType released entire libraries of Type 3 fonts. The fact that Adobe kept the superior font format to itself made all of these companies very angry but at the same time, PostScript became a runaway success that led to a much larger market in which everyone could sell fonts.

Not content with controlling the market of output devices, Adobe developed a version of PostScript that could run (albeit slowly) on personal computers so these could visualize PostScript data on-screen. This technology was christened Display PostScript.

The font wars of the early nineties

Adobe offered Display PostScript to both Apple and Microsoft but both companies were reluctant to give another company control over a vital part of their operating system. They were also unwilling to pay the stiff royalties that Adobe demanded. Realizing that they both shared a common problem, Apple and Microsoft decided to join forces. Apple would provide a font technology while Microsoft would come up with an imaging technology similar to PostScript.

Apple engineers had already been working on several vector font technologies during the late ’80s. Lead engineer Sampo Kaasila came up with a very promising scalable font technology codenamed Bass (because you can also scale a fish). This was first renamed to Royal and later to TrueType before being exchanged with Microsoft in 1991.

The Microsoft printer engine was named TrueImage. It was buggy and since both Apple and Microsoft didn’t really need it, it never showed up in any of their products. The TrueImage RIP did get used in Aldus TrapWise and when that company was later acquired by Adobe, Adobe ended up selling a product that featured a fairly unreliable PostScript clone-RIP.

Apple made TrueType an integral part of System 7 while Microsoft added TrueType support to Windows 3.1 in early 1992. Adobe responded to the TrueType threat by releasing a tool called Adobe Type Manager (ATM) which improved the visual appearance of PostScript Type 1 fonts on computer screens. It also improved the output quality of these fonts on non-PostScript printers. At the same time, they also published the specifications of their PostScript Type 1 font format. The fact that font manufacturer Bitstream had successfully reverse-engineering the Type 1 format may have helped a bit in this decision.

A lot of the major font foundries were reluctant to release TrueType versions of their fonts and focused on Type 1 fonts instead. The market ended up being flooded by badly designed homemade TrueType fonts. This, combined with flaws in the initial TrueType rasterizer used in Windows 3.1 gave the TrueType technology a bad reputation which it didn’t really deserve and which is still present even today.

The QuickDraw GX failure

While Microsoft gradually improved its support for TrueType in subsequent versions of Windows, Apple was far more ambitious. They announced a plan to rework a major part of their operating system and improve the handling of interactive graphics and typography. This new technology was called QuickDraw GX and fonts that utilized all of the advanced features were called GX fonts.

Application developers were reluctant to spend much time developing fonts for a basically unproven technology that only ran on Macs. Adobe refused to support the technology in applications like PageMaker or Illustrator, for fear that it might kill their PostScript cash cow. Virtually no GX compatible fonts ever made it to the market. Eventually, Apple was forced to end the development of QuickDraw GX along with several other ambitious projects like OpenDoc.

Multiple Master fonts

In 1991 Adobe introduced a new font format called Multiple Master. Multiple Master fonts are a kind of fonts in which the appearance of the font can be changed by the designer itself. A designer can create an instance of a font that is ‘somewhat’ bold or he can change the width of characters without sacrificing any typographic quality.

Multiple Master fonts themselves met only limited success but the technology behind it was used in some important Adobe products like ATM and Adobe Acrobat.

A new millennium, a new alliance

In 1996, Adobe and Microsoft surprised the entire industry by announcing that they would jointly develop a new font format that would merge the two main font technologies, PostScript and TrueType. This new technology was codenamed OpenType.  According to some, it is remarkably similar to Apple’s earlier QuickDraw GX font technology.

OpenType is a hybrid, TrueType alike font format that can contain both TrueType or PostScript font data. This made it easy for Adobe to convert its existing library and finally gain a solid foothold in the Windows font market. Microsoft added OpenType support to Windows 2000, hoping to expand its market share in the publishing market which was traditionally dominated by the Macintosh. Users also benefit from OpenType since it is completely platform-independent and offers advanced typographic features as well as support for enhanced character sets like Unicode.

The first OpenType fonts appeared on the market in 2000. Adobe adapted ATM so other operating systems besides Windows 2000 support OpenType. Meanwhile, all the major operating systems on the market include native support for OpenType.

The death of Multiple Master fonts

In 1999, Adobe announced that they were giving up on Multiple Master fonts, citing a lack of user interest as the main reason behind the move. The company continued to sell its existing catalog of Multiple Master fonts until early 2003. At the end of 2004, Adobe stopped offering tech support for Multiple Master fonts, excepting for customers who owned their Font Folio 9 library.

OpenType dominates the market

Adobe continued to promote the use of OpenType and didn’t ship any new Type 1 fonts from 1999 onwards. Around 2003 they had finished converting their entire font library to OpenType.

From PDF 1.6 (Acrobat 7) onwards, it is possible to embed OpenType fonts as OpenType, they no longer have to pretend to be PostScript or TrueType fonts. This clearly indicates that OpenType is the font format of the future.

Around 2007, an estimated 85 to 90% of all fonts sold were OpenType fonts..

Type 1 is deprecated

Early 2021 Adobe announced that its Creative Cloud applications like InDesign and Illustrator will stop supporting Type 1 fonts in January 2023. In Photoshop support for type 1 fonts already ends in 2021. Given the dominance of Adobe in content creation, this means the Type 1 font format is effectively dead.

5 thoughts on “The history of fonts

  1. Ah, this article was very helpful, thanks so much. I may link to it if you don’t mind. Type 1 and True Type and Open Type have just been an area of confusion for me for a very long time, and now it is crystal-clear. And thanks for the rest of this very useful site — I saw where you said you didn’t support it anymore, but it is very worthwhile.

  2. >>I am looking for history on the font called Memphis. Any help?

    I set my first print job in memphis on my dad’s linotype, right before the machine was scrapped for recycle.
    The original Memphis was a linotype font.

    Emil Rudolf Weiss was the first to add slabserifs to the sanserif forms pioneered by Erbar and Renner. He designed Memphis for Stempel in 1929, following Futura; details show the influence of the American typeface Litho Antique from 1910. Ludlow Karnak can be seen as a version of the same design.

    Designers: Rudolf Wolf
    Design date: 1929-36
    Publisher: Linotype
    MyFonts debut: Sep 14, 2000

    Wikipedia has an interesting history on SLABSERIFS

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