More on optical scaling

My last post (4/23) explained that some digital type designers today are interested in the way Morris Benton’s fonts, and indeed all the metal types produced by the American Type Foundry in the early 1900s, were optically scaled. Optical scaling was easily accomplished at ATF by adjusting certain settings on Linn Boyd Benton’s matrix engraving machine. Linn Boyd Benton explained in an essay he wrote in about 1906:

The adjustments are such that the operator is enabled to engrave the letter proportionately more extended or condensed, and lighter or heavier in face, than the pattern. All these variations are necessary for the production of a properly graded modern series containing the usual sizes. In fact, on account of the laws of optics, which cannot be gone into here, only one size of a series is cut in absolutely exact proportion to the patterns.

The illustration of optical scaling reproduced below was made in 1989 by ATF’s successor, the Kingsley/ATF Type Corporation. At the time, Kingsley/ATF was embarking on a program of digitizing typefaces, including the optical scaling characteristics of the original metal types. Ultimately, the company went bankrupt in the early 1990s, but that’s another story.

The illustration uses the capital M from Morris Benton’s Wedding Text, designed in about 1901. In the earlier “metal type” days at ATF, the set of Wedding Text patterns, one image for each letter (these particular patterns, by the way, are now part of RIT’s Benton Collection), were used to produce matrices for every type size. According to the handwritten “daybook” of general engraving machine settings for cutting the matrices for 228 ATF typefaces, no size of Wedding Text was cut exactly proportional to the pattern. Instead, the matrices for each type size were either condensed or expanded in relation to the pattern. (In most other typefaces, one size, usually somewhere in the middle of the range of sizes for that face, was “normal,” i.e., the letters were cut exactly proportional to the images on the patterns, not condensed or expanded.)

To generate this illustration, Kingsley/ATF photographically enlarged these three sizes of a Wedding Text capital M to a uniform height, so that customers could then easily compare them. Notice that the smaller the size, the more expanded the character. This is necessary simply for legibility, although in the days of metal type mechanical parameters also dictated that smaller sizes be expanded.

In addition to the expansion or condensation of the letter, the “set width” of letters in different sizes also had to be adjusted for good optical scaling. The set width is the total amount of horizontal space (width) on a piece of metal type. In order for the eye to be able to read very small type, more white space is needed around each letter, so the type needs to be relatively wide.

Kingsley/ATF produced the following illustration, also in 1989, to show its customers this aspect of optical scaling. Because enlarging this sample will perhaps also distort it, I’ve left it at its original size; I apologize for the very small 6-point example. But hopefully it is understandable. I’ve re-typed the Kingsley/ATF caption to this illustration below it in case the original caption is too small to decipher.

Kingsley/ATF’s original caption: “Notice the difference between a true 6-point type enlarged to 24 points and a true 24-point type. The true sizes were created using Optical Scaling. Typeface: Wedding Text”

More later …

***

Two additional comments from “Kentop” came in about optical scaling. See directly below:

from kentop@cox.net       2018/02/09      at 6:58 a.m. and  7:02 a.m.

  1. The digitization project by Kingsley/ATF was centered in Tucson Arizona. I was the first free lance graphic artist recruited by Henry and Limell Schneicker, who had invested heavily in Kingsley back then. Henry was a brilliant coder who spent much of his time making optical scaling work on a computer. His wife, Limell ran the front office. In addition to them, they hired a programmer named Peter Jens Alfke, who produced the alpha ware that I had to create fonts with that became ATF Type Designer 1. Peter went on to work for Apple and was responsible for creating post-it notes in releases of their system software. The very first font I had to draw was Bernhard fashion. It was, in Henry’s words, a “single stroke” font. Almost at the end of creating this font, Adobe announced that they would not support single stroke fonts. If you are familiar with Adobe Illustrator, a single stroke font is one using a single Bezier curve for each letter whose only editable parameter was the stroke. Adobe was right to abandon it. So, we started on Benton’s wedding text. State of the art at that time consisted of “large” 24″ greyscale monitors hooked to Mac IIxc’s. The alpha ware digitizing software that eventually became Type Designer was stable enough to allow us to create the first ATF fonts for computers. The “bug list” for the program grew exponentially every day and I managed to work around the problems in the program until Jens literally rewrote the program overnight to keep it working. At one point, the revision had to abandon the format used to save all my work, and I had to literally start from scratch. My modus operandi was to use a flat bed scanner and scan in 120mm film negatives of the original matrices for each font and use them as templates to draw the bezier curves using the fewest points possible. The negatives had quality problems so that a lot of it was guess work. In the case of Wedding Text, We were able to get the original drawings of the font by Benton himself. These came on a long roll of paper about 1 foot tall. It was my job to create all the characters needed for a modern computer font. Benton didn’t draw many characters beyond the alphabet and numbers for Wedding Text. I replicated his style of creating characters on a long roll in pencil and filled in all the “missing” characters like @ and >< and others Benton never bothered with. When I moved onto Thompson Quillscript, I was amazed by a character he drew called an interrobang. It was the first time I encountered the punctuation mark and it was drawn in Tommy Thompson’s own hand! Subsequent fonts we produced all had an interrobang character after that. Kingsley ATF may seem like nothing more than an footnote in a book about ATF. But we were a bunch of dedicated people trying to do justice to the fonts created by designers we considered true giants in their field.
  2. One more thing, Henry Schneiker sold his optical scaling algorithms and software to Adobe. If you see examples of optical scaling using wedding text, those are my wireframes, based on Benton’s original drawings.

 

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One response to “More on optical scaling

  1. Brilliant. I’ve never seen this piece of literature put out by Kingley/ATF but it is a principle I’ve been trying to hammer into every graphic designer/student who tours through the studio. The difference of the page “color” and legibility of the face and composition is dramatic when comparing foundry type to it’s contemporary digital version reproduced photomechanically for letterpress or offset printing.

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