Category Archives: History

An episode from the history of typography

But they could afford typesetters. It’s hard to realize nowadays what that meant.

If you’re like me, you spend much of your time with electronic type. I was struck by how strange a state of affairs this really is recently when my brother sent me a video about a curious episode from the history of typography.

In the advent of computing, Bell Labs was instrumental in developing a lot of computing technology. As part of AT&T, Bell was a monopoly, which meant it didn’t have to be as cut-throat about its bottom line and could afford to allow a group of researchers to follow their curiosity even if their work didn’t appear to yield short-term profit. From this arrangement we got things like Unix, which is most likely at the root of the operating system you’re presently using; Bell Labs also helped bring about the democratization of type.

Before the 15th century (at least in the West), of course, nobody did typing. After Gutenberg, typing was a specialized skill. Not only did it demand extensive training, but the equipment was expensive. Fast forwarding to the 20th century, Dr. David Brailsford reports that in 1979 the newest, most affordable typesetting equipment would cost $50,000—enough to buy a nice house.

A team at Bell Labs managed to get a hold of one of these machines, a Linotron 202. Fonts were provided on floppy disks, at great cost and in proprietary format by a company called Mergenthaler. The Bell team reverse engineered the fonts, which were in an obscure format, to create their own.

The video details a modern-day project hearkening back to the past. In 1980 the Bell team wrote a memo describing how they reverse engineered the fonts, as well as the problems they encountered with the 202 machine, but the memo was suppressed at the time. Today the “authentic” memo only exists as a photocopy of a photocopy, and so in 2013 Brailsford decided to recreate it using modern software but mimicking the functions of the original software and processes to make it as authentic as possible.

Today we take it for granted that a given computer has dozens of fonts and new ones are obtainable for free or very cheap. Even professional type families in the hundreds of dollars are vastly cheaper than they were a few decades ago. Thanks must go, in part, to the Bell Labs team.

(Thinking about this over the past week has got me a bit sidetracked—I even decided to typeset my dissertation proposal in Latex.)


Document power

It’s becoming harder and harder to ignore how documents exert influence on us—in politics, across society and in everyday life.

Examples are easy to find. A recent paper in the Journal of Documentation discussed how, in South Africa under Apartheid, documents were used to impose racial categories on individuals, which resonates with today’s discussions around legal gender. Library and information science professor Ron Day’s book Indexing It All discusses how social media and other big-data apparatuses exert similar control.

But the power of documents is nothing new. Indeed, I suspect it’s as old as writing itself. Or even older. I can only imagine the power wrought by the earliest smears of red ochre on burial sites 100,000 years ago. Of course, political control—especially when unbeknownst—is much graver than the kind of power of spiritual awe.

An interesting example of the use of written documents to impose political power is given by Bhavani Raman in the book Document Raj: Writing and Scribes in Early Colonial South India, based on her doctoral dissertation. Her account shows how the machinery built around written records far exceeded the power of military might in the 18th-century English colonization of Madras. The pen is mightier than the sword, indeed. And beyond the manipulative bureaucracy that was constructed around written records themselves, issues around language choice and translation are also wrapped up in the story. This work contextualizes the modernization of India, but it also gives an extensive and clear account of writing at work.

I’m currently reading Glenn Greenwald’s gripping account of the Snowden revelation a few years back, and it strikes me how the nature of document power has become all the more pernicious with the rise of modern information and communication technologies. Not only do written documents impose political categories and the like, but now they offer strangers a window into the depths of our lives through constant surveillance.

And it’s not just the capacity for seeing that makes this so dangerous; rather, it’s what remains unseen. If the NSA inter alia had a total and ultimate view of our lives, that would be one thing. They would know our actions, but they’d also know our backgrounds and our deepest motivations, desires and fears. Yes, that would be scary. But I think it’s even worse that they know some of these things but not others—because they fill in the gaps with guesses. For instance, say someone conducts a Google search for how to build a bomb. Does this necessarily mean they are planning to blow something up? They could be writing a novel, trying to understand the physics of a recent terrorism incident, doing research for a school project or simply trying to see how easy it is to find such instructions online. To use one of Greenwald’s examples, if I told you that a woman buys a pregnancy test, then calls an abortion clinic, you’ll probably make certain assumptions. But what if she bought the pregnancy test for her father, who works at an abortion clinic, as a cheap way to check for testicular cancer? These examples may seem facile, but you may be surprised by how patterns and fragmented information can be misconstrued. To give another example, there’s a famous riddle you may have heard:

A father and his son get in a car crash. The father is killed, and the son is terribly injured. The son gets rushed to the hospital for surgery. But the surgeon, upon seeing the boy, says, “I can’t do it! That boy is my son!” Explain.

Based on the information we have, we make assumptions. And those assumptions give us a paradox. In the case of this riddle, it’s rather harmless (other than revealing your possible gender bias). But in other cases, it could be life or death. To be sure, certain facts can be construed from examining people’s patterns of conduct, but it is very easy to jump to conclusions.

So documents and the practices around them can be tremendously powerful in our lives. We can use them, and we can be used by them. Often this power is invisible. Some of that invisible power is being unveiled… but surely, so much of it remains hidden.

What does the alphabet mean?

The alphabet is a conventional array of letters that we commit to memory as children. Our letters don’t seem to have any inherent meanings (well, except for ones like “a,” which are standalone words), but we agree that they ought to be ordered thus: A, B, C, D, etc.

Caveman Alphabet Bingo

If you’re like me, from time to time, you might have asked yourself why. Our alphabet, of course, appears in the same order as the Middle and Old English alphabets (minus some letters), and we can trace this alphabetic chain of inheritance back to Classical Latin. Each subsequent writing system seems to draw on its predecessors. The Ancient Greek alphabet, which was the world’s first alphabetic writing system, for example, drew on the characters from the Phoenician syllabary, which were themselves derived from pictograms. (The character A is, apparently, representative of a now-upside-down bull’s head, for instance.) But, so, there had to be someone (likely a group, or perhaps really an individual) at the outset who ordered the library of writing system symbols, right? Is it really possible that they did so in a completely arbitrary way?

Semiotician Sergey G. Proskurin has presented evidence that the ordering of the alphabet has significance that reflects the cosmology of its originators. I came across his most recent paper in Semiotica, “Semiotics and Writing Systems,” which was my introduction to his work, but if you’re interested, you can trace his research back quite a ways. Now, the writing is pretty rough, and some of his assertions are sweeping and, in my judgment, overambitious for the evidence that is actually presented, and then there’s the general unease of this whole thing smacking of Medieval numerology… but it’s an interesting paper nonetheless, and it’s fascinating to think about.

In the paper, Proskurin shows how the first three letters and the middle three letters of the alphabet may have been meaningful for Indo-European societies. (And can be, by extension, meaningful to us, too, in this vestigial capacity.)

Proskurin first examines the first three letters of Old Gothic, explaining that their pronunciation relates to a ritual utterance that praises God for giving the gift of writing to the people. In Old Slavic, the first three letters reflect the saying, “I know the letters.”

There seems to be some particular importance with the letter three—and thus the first three letters of the alphabet. Whereas it is difficult to find a common Indo-European root for the numbers one and two, the number three is easily traceable. Proskurin suggests this may be because of the additive sequence 1 + 2 = 3, which goes in order. This is not found anywhere else in our number system. Indeed, even today (and even though, curiously, our own word “alphabet” only includes the first two letters), we often talk about “the ABC’s” as a unit.

Then Proskurin moves on to examining the middle of the alphabet. He discusses the Latin alphabet, which had 25 letters. At the exact middle of the alphabet is the sequence L, M, N, which was pronounced as we pronounce it: elemen.  This recalls the Latin word “elementum,” denoting the smallest parts of the material world. In this way, the central letters of the alphabet seem to reflect something about Roman cosmological knowledge. Proskurin says it is expectable that the middle of the alphabet would be used to share cosmological knowledge: He cites the concept of the world tree, for example, unique to Indo-European cultures, which segments the universe in three levels, and in which we occupy the middle. “It is not difficult to show,” he says, “that, in specific geographic areas where trees were used in ancient times to represent the boundary between adjacent fields of settlements, the concept of a ‘world tree’ or a ‘tree of life’ emerged” (p. 270), whereas this is apparently not universal.

As I mentioned, the evidence seems a bit too sparse to suggest that there is a grand meaning hidden in the design of ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ, but the tidbits Proskurin presents sure are tantalizing. Perhaps, indeed, the ancient alphabets were organized by some meaningful principle. I’d love to see a fully-fledged study on the topic that considers as many writing systems and time periods as possible. (I’d also like to see a fair discussion of counter-examples, which is notably absent from virtually all work in semiotics.)