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movable type

Indices : Terminology : Movable Type

This wiki entry is not about the blog software Movable Type.

Typography refers to the practice of producing texts from a standard, mechanical system. Before the late 20th Century, typopgraphy had been made by physically piecing together bits of pre-made letters, which were usually blocks of wood or metal that could be printed. These things are called Movable Type, as they were literal pieces of type that could be moved.

While Johann Gutenberg normally gets the credit in the West for having invented movable type, he was not the first to reach such an invention (although most likely that he still reached his invention without any knowledge of earlier and/or foreign methods). What are some “pre-modern” examples of movable type? Well, it is rather certain that Koreans were printing books with movable metal letters during the 1100s. The Chinese had most likely been doing the same with blocks of wood or ivory before them.

Also during the 1100s, at least one Bavarian monastary was making monumental lettering by pressing stock, premade letters into a clay surface (the same “stamp-letter” were clearly used throuoght the piece, but since only the letter impressions remain in situ, we do not know what the letter stamps themselves looked like). Don’t believe this crazy Bavarian story? Here is a link (in German): typeforum.de/news_308.htm.

Gutenberg invented a system by which small pieces of lead type could be manuafactured, and then succesfully made the first latin font acceptable to readers as type. Later that century, harder punches (which Gutenberg had none of), and hand held type molds (most likely invented in France or the low countries), allowed the technology to spread and flourish. Because all subsequent type-producing systems are based off of this system–including mechanical alternatives like the Linotype Machine or the Monotype Machine–Gutenberg’s method could be called the beginning of “modern” movable type.

An example of non-modern movable type is Letterpress printing from polymer plates. Polymer plates have an impression on them that comes from photofraphic or digital output. The plates do not move (they are one whole element), but they are still type, as they can have lots of digital type outputted onto them.

Whether photo- or digital fonts can really be called movable type is another question all together. There are certainly still individuals who print from movable type (contemporary letterpress users, for instance). But if the above-mentioned technologies do not fall under the range of movable type, then it might be said that its days have come to an end.

(These opinions really just form a stub post. Please feel free to edit or delete any of them, including this notice as well!)