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Cuneiform Tablet
15, Sep 2020

The Origins of Typography

Johannes Gutenberg once said, “Give me twenty-six soldiers of lead, and I will conquer the world. “ (Raymond). His words ring prophetic today, as the fabric of language, typography has truly shaped our world.

With earliest known discoveries dating back to 35,000 BCE, we see our first examples of human attempts to communicate with the Venus of Hohle Fels Sculpture, and in 30,000 BCE, the first discovery of human writing in the Cave of Lascaux, located in present-day Montignac, France. Around 3000 BCE, the Sumerians introduced cuneiform, a pictograph-based system of writing. As this rebus system became more abstract, the cuneiform symbols came to represent vocal sounds. The transition from pictographs to vocal sounds is how syllabic language first began. Around 1800 BCE, we see the concept of reusable symbols used by the Minoans of Ancient Greece, on the Phaistos Disk. In 8th Century BCE the Phoenician alphabet became the basis for the Greek language.

It isn’t until 1045 CE when we trace the origins of movable type in China with Pi Sheng’s invention. As the Chinese language had over 44,000 distinct characters, the printing of movable type didn’t become popular until much later when Johannes Gutenberg puts together all of the elements of printing and builds a press that prints the Gutenberg Bible. His efforts lead to the expansion of printing all throughout Europe. In France, Claude Garamond establishes the first type foundry in 1570 CE.

As unique was the culture of the various regions, so were the aesthetics of typography. Cuneiform were made by stamping a wedge-shaped tool into clay. The Ancient Roman alphabet (8th Century CE) was all capital letters, consisting of majuscules and minuscules. In mid fifteenth century Germany, largely due to Gutenberg and the printing press we start to see the popular use of gothic fonts. Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German using Fraktur further cemented the relationship to Germany and Gothic font styles. In France, we see the Romain du Roi typeface, created by Philippe Grandjean and Pierre Simon Fournier; which features increased contrast between the thick and thick lines of the letterforms. Italy’s Bodoni and partner Didot created the Bodoni typeface and are credited with creating the “Modern” style.

Throughout history, we see numerous examples of typography being shaped by the politics and/or intellectual climate of a region. In early Babylon; cuneiform was invented in order to solve a need for recording trade related to commerce. The code of Hammurabi established the basis for a system of laws and ethics, some of which are in use today. The discovery of the Rosetta Stone was due to Napoleon’s soldiers seeking to build an outpost. During Charlemagne's reign, efforts were made to improve education and literacy, which led to the invention of Caroline Miniscule, which had the first version of lowercase letters around the late eighth century. Martin Luther’s protest, which led to the Protestant revolution was made possible largely due to printing. It is hard to overstate the contributions that the invention and evolution of type have helped to shape our lives and our world.

Raymond, Robert. Out of the Fiery Furnace: The Impact of Metals on the History of Mankind. The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1986.


Steven Hughes is based in Austin, TX and is currently a student at Austin Community College.

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