Typography, from the Greek words τύπος typos “form” and γράφειν graphein “to write”, traces its origins to the first punches and dies used to make seals and currency in ancient times. The uneven spacing of the impressions on brick stamps found in the Mesopotamian cities of Uruk and Larsa, dating from the 2nd millennium BC, may have been evidence of type where the reuse of identical characters were applied to create cuneiform text.
Babylonian cylinder seals were used to create an impression on a surface by rolling the seal on wet clay. Typography was also realized in the Phaistos Disc, an enigmatic Minoan print item from Crete, Greece, which dates between 1850 and 1600 BC. It has been proposed that Roman lead pipe inscriptions were created by movable type printing, but German typographer Herbert Brekle recently dismissed this view.
The essential criterion of type identity was met by medieval print artifacts such as the Latin Pruefening Abbey inscription of 1119 that was created by the same technique as the Phaistos disc. The silver altarpiece of patriarch Pellegrinus II (1195−1204) in the cathedral of Cividale was printed with individual letter punches. The same printing technique can apparently be found in 10th to 12th century Byzantine reliquaries. Other early examples include individual letter tiles where the words are formed by assembling single letter tiles in the desired order were reasonably widespread in medieval Northern Europe.
Korean movable type from 1377 used for the Jikji
Typography with movable type was invented in 11th-century China by Bi Sheng (990–1051) during the Song Dynasty. His movable type system was manufactured from ceramic materials, and clay type printing continued to be practiced in China until the Qing Dynasty. Wang Zhen was one of the pioneers of wooden movable type. Although the wooden type was more durable under the mechanical rigors of handling, repeated printing wore the character faces down, and the types could only be replaced by carving new pieces. Metal type was first invented in Korea during the Goryeo Dynasty around 1230. Hua Sui introduced bronze type printing to China in 1490 AD. However, the diffusion of both movable-type systems was limited and the technology did not spread beyond East and Central Asia.
Modern movable type, along with the mechanical printing press, is most often attributed to the goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg. His type pieces from a lead-based alloy suited printing purposes so well that the alloy is still used today. Gutenberg developed specialized techniques for casting and combining cheap copies of letterpunches in the vast quantities required to print multiple copies of texts. This technical breakthrough was instrumental in starting the Printing Revolution and printing the world’s first book (with movable type) the Gutenberg Bible.
Computer technology revolutionized typography in the 20th century. Personal computers in the 1980s like the Macintosh allowed type designers to create types digitally using commercial graphic design software. Digital technology also enabled designers to create more experimental typefaces, alongside the practical fonts of traditional typography. Designs for typefaces could be created faster with the new technology, and for more specific functions. The cost for developing typefaces was drastically lowered, becoming widely available to the masses. The change has been called the “democratization of type” and has given new designers more opportunities to enter the field.