‘Give me but one firm spot on which to stand and I shall move the earth’ Archimedes
First written for D2 magazine, 2008. Edited and translated,
Oslo © 2022 Christopher Haanes
I once heard a story about an old letterpress typographer, from the time when letters were cast in led and placed in special cases (hence the terms upper case and lower case for alternately majuscules and minuscules, from their placement in the case). The job of setting type was tedious; every character sat on a lead body and was picked out of the case by hand. According to the story he could determine which typeface it was by looking at a single dot. I didn’t find the story to be very convincing, but I do think there is something intriguing about the fact that a small point can contain a lot of information. Atomists, pointillists and stigmatists (sic) might agree.
Instead of imagining the words from the Old Testament ‘Every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers: Grow, grow’ I imagine an old typographer, bending over his little dot, whispering ‘Times, Times…’.
Micro typography is certainly an essential part of the treatment of type. That is why there are tenfold versions of Claude Garamond’s letters from the 1560s: The differences between a good and a bad typeface may lie in a minute detail. Of all the Garamond versions I have stuck with the one designed by Robert Slimbach for Adobe, hence named Adobe Garamond. Its italic is based on that of another typographer from the 1560s, Robert Granjon.
To begin with the Greeks didn’t use spaces between words. One would guess where to pause from the context. The Roman scribes started using a mid-point from about mid first century in order to mark off abbreviations and word spaces (the Trajan inscription from 113 AD is a good example). Perhaps the Greeks were better actors than the Romans, as they would understand when to pause in the performance from the context? Seriously, though, a system of dots was developed by the Greek playwright Aristophanes in the 3rd century BC. A low dot, for example marked an occasion for a short breath after a short phrase.
The numerals that evolved in India (arqam hindaya) and eventually found their way into our Latin manuscript tradition through Arabic culture, used a zero which at one point was marked off with a dot. Perhaps they used it as a contemplative point and focused their breathing on it? A tempting thought, but I can’t confirm it, however much I enjoy fantasising about it.
Over the course of centuries, a lot of special characters have taken their side next to the dot and indeed next to the letters of the alphabet, and today, hundreds of special characters, called glyphs, are hidden under the keyboard keys. Open Type technology has expanded the character set of a font to hold potentially 65 000 glyphs. The so called mid point has survived as a so called ‘bullet’, as if someone had shot a hole in the paper. It often looks to heavy in relation to the rest of the text, and some fonts contain an alternate, smaller bullet.
The Roman mid point was asymmetrical, shaped by the broad edged brush. Sign painter, priest and historian Edward M. Catich has written a thick book called ‘The Origin of the Serif’ which explains in detail how Roman letters took their form from this writing implement.
By following the point or dot back in time we can arrive at a calligraphic brush writing tradition which is essential to our understanding of how our letters evolved.
Below are examples from imperial Roman inscriptions of brush made (then chiseled out) mid points.