On the Death and 441-Year Life of the Pixel

When you’re diving into the history of computing and its concepts, you rarely have to look much further back in time than the Second World War. It happens sometimes, but not that often. However, there are exceptions – and this is one that really boggles the mind: the pixel? One of those little dots on your screen? It’s well over 400 years old.

Making letters and numbers appear pretty, rounded, and anti-aliased on a screen is much harder than you would think – you only need to look at the different methods and styles of font anti-aliasing in various graphical environments (and its supporters… Always the supporters…) to realise that it’s never perfect – far from it, in fact. The funny thing is though, this struggle to put a round peg in a square hole (what rendering fonts with pixels actually is) is a lot older than you’d think.

Jonathan Hoefler, of Hoefler & Frere-Jones, has dug up an example of pixel-based font rendering from 1567, found in an embroidery guide written by Giovanni Ostaus.

Ostaus' pixel-based alphabet.

As Hoefler explains:

Renaissance ‘lace books’ have much to offer the modern digital designer, who also faces the challenge of portraying clear and replicable images in a constrained environment. Ostaus’s alphabet follows the cardinal rule of bitmaps, which is to always reckon the height of a capital letter on an odd number of pixels. (Try drawing a capital E on both a 5×5 grid and a 6×6, and you’ll see.) Ostaus ignored the second rule, however, which is “leave space for descenders.”

While not dealing with pixels in a technical sense (as in, digital imaging), Ostaus did effectively work with the same limitations, and had to take the same arguments into account when designing this typeface as his modern colleagues in digital typography do. Simply fascinating.


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