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Where Did Times New Roman Come From?

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The evolution of Times New Roman, with historical precedents
The evolution of Times New Roman, with historical precedents
Top: Gros Cicero, from Surius’ Commentarivs Brevis Rervm In Orbe Gestarvm. Middle: Plantin, from H.G. Wells’ Tono-Bungay. Bottom: Times New Roman, from The Monotype Recorder, Vol. 21.

If you open up your word processing software and start typing, chances are you’re looking at Times New Roman. It’s so ubiquitous that we take it for granted, but just like Spider-Man or Wolverine, this super-typeface has its own origin story.

You might be surprised to learn that Times New Roman began as a challenge, when esteemed type designer Stanley Morison criticized London’s newspaper The Times for being out-of-touch with modern typographical trends. So The Times asked him to create something better. Morison enlisted the help of draftsman Victor Lardent and began conceptualizing a new typeface with two goals in mind: efficiency—maximizing the amount of type that would fit on a line and thus on a page—and readability. Morison wanted any printing in his typeface to be economical, a necessity in the newspaper business, but he also wanted the process of reading to be easy on the eye.

Morison looked to classical type designs for inspiration. He liked the look of the modern typeface Plantin, which was based on the older typeface Gros Cicero, designed by Robert Granjon. The “cicero” in Gros Cicero was a contemporary term for the size of the type—today, we would describe cicero’s size as 11.5-point—and the “gros” referred to the proportions of the letters. The Rare Book Division has an example of Gros Cicero in Surius’ Commentarivs Brevis Rervm In Orbe Gestarvm, printed in 1574.

To achieve efficiency, Morison raised what is called the “x-height” of the letters. This is the distance between the top and bottom of a lower-case letter without ascending or descending parts, like a, c, or m. This is easier to illustrate than describe, so check out this handy diagram:

The basic components of type
The basic components of type

He also reduced the “tracking,” or spacing between each letter, to make a more condensed typeface. As you might imagine, moving letters closer together could also make them harder to read. To protect his second goal of readability, Morison had to alter the shape of the letterforms. The thicker portions of each letter—for example, the vertical lines of the “n” above—were widened, so that the letters held more ink and appeared darker when printed, which contrasted more clearly against the paper. The intersections of these thicker strokes were thinned; for example, where the vertical lines of the “n” meet its serifs. This kept the shape of the letters from becoming muddled and also gave them a rounder, more legible look. All of these differences can be clearly seen in a comparison of the old typeface with Morison and Lardent’s new creation, which The Times published in a pamphlet around the time of the change.

A comparison of Times New Roman with the typeface it replaced
A comparison of Times New Roman with the typeface it replaced

The Times tested its type thoroughly. In 1926, the British Medical Research Council had published a Report on the Legibility of Print, and the new typeface followed its recommendations. Before final approval, test pages were also submitted to a “distinguished ophthalmic authority,” (Morison, vol. 21, no. 247, p. 14) leading The Times to announce that its typeface had “the approval of the most eminent medical opinion.” The newspaper recognized that scientific analysis was well and good, but an equally important test was actually reading it. Members of the team practiced reading for long periods of time, under both natural and artificial light. After test upon test and proof upon proof, the final design was approved, and “The Times New Roman” was born.

The front page of the first edition of The Times with its new typeface
The front page of the first edition of The Times with its new typeface

On October 3, 1932, The Times unveiled its new typeface with great fanfare. “From September 26th to October 3rd,” notes The Monotype Recorder, “all the readers of The Times were reminded, daily, of the importance of type and printing.” It was the first time that a newspaper had designed its own typeface, and The Times owned its exclusive rights for one year. In the following years, American publishers were slow to adopt Times New Roman because in order to look its best, it required an amount of ink and quality of paper that American newspapers were initially unwilling to shell out for. It eventually caught on as a typeface for books and magazines, with its first big American client being Woman’s Home Companion in December 1941. The Chicago Sun-Times began printing with it in 1953.

John Jacob Astor V, Chairman of The Times, prints the first newspapers set in Times New Roman
John Jacob Astor V, Chairman of The Times, prints the first newspapers set in Times New Roman

An interesting footnote to the development of Times New Roman trickles down to us in the present day. The original hardware for the typeface—the “punches” that helped create the molds for casting type—were created jointly by the Monotype Corporation and the Linotype Company, the two main manufacturers of automated typesetting machines and equipment at that time. Both companies subsequently made sets of the type for purchase. Monotype named its type “Times New Roman,” while Linotype used “Times Roman.” Fast forward to the computer era: when selecting “fonts” for their word processing programs, Apple chose to license the Linotype catalog, and Microsoft licensed Monotype’s. That’s why the name of this typeface is slightly different depending on your choice of Mac or PC!

In 1932, The Times specifically noted that their new typeface was not intended for books: “It is a newspaper type—and hardly a book type—for it is strictly appointed for use in short lines—i.e., in columns.” They later developed a wider version adapted to fit a book’s longer lines of text. This idea that the use of a typeface affects its form struck me as very relevant to today’s world of e-book publishing and web-based content. Indeed, Times New Roman’s chief competitors these days are Arial and Calibri, two typefaces whose lack of serifs makes them easier to read on a screen, according to many. But at 82 years old, Times New Roman is still going strong and proving that our humblest word processing friends have some pretty historic beginnings.

If you’re taken with typography, then NYPL has a mountain of resources for you. For starters, try Alexander Lawson’s Anatomy of a Typeface, Stanley Morison’s A Tally of Types, or Daniel Updike’s Printing Types: Their History, Forms, and Use.

“Sphinx” diagram courtesy Wikimedia Commons. All other images: Rare Book Division and General Research Division. New York Public Library. Astor, Lenox, Tilden Foundations.

Comments

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Times New Roman

What a splendid article, lively and informative! I must say that I have never liked Times New Roman, but at least now I have a moderate understanding of its origins and purpose. Well done!

Times New Roman

Great article! Patience and Fortitude must be purring.

NYPL font

So, what font is NYPL's website in?

NYPL font

The NYPL website font is Lato.

Thank you...

... This has been a real font of information.

Times New Roman

I love learning about the origins of things---especially something we use commonly! Thank you :)

Me too! That's why my

Me too! That's why my favorite part of this great post is "Apple chose to license the Linotype catalog, and Microsoft licensed Monotype’s. That’s why the name of this typeface is slightly different depending on your choice of Mac or PC!" :))

The defaults are changing

Lovely article! Just one minor quibble: "If you open up your word processing software and start typing, chances are you’re looking at Times New Roman." There's actually quite a good chance that if your word processing software is Microsoft Word, you'll be looking at Calibri, not Times New Roman, as the default font in Office was changed over 8 years ago.

Some more to the story

No discussion of Times (New) Roman is complete without bringing Mike Parker and Starling into the mix. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/a2fa033e-7ca1-11de-a7bf-00144feabdc0.html

Thanks Jeff. If you hit a

Thanks Jeff. If you hit a paywall, this Aug 1, 2009 article is available via Proquest. http://www.nypl.org/collections/articles-databases/proquest-research-library

Fontificating

Very nice, but it'll never replace Comic Sans.

Much more to this story

Jeff Potter is correct. There is a dispute about whether Stanley Morison "designed" Times New Roman or whether it was designed earlier for the American company Lanston Monotype by an American designer named Starling Burgess. Mike Parker presents some convincing evidence which I saw first hand. Parker's article on the subject is in Printing History: The Journal of the American Printing History Association, 31/32, 1994, pp 52 – 108.

Thank you for sharing this

Thank you for sharing this information, Sumner -- I'm looking forward to reading this article and learning more on the subject. If others are curious about Printing History, a journal published by the American Printing History Association, or APHA (https://printinghistory.org), you can read its issues from as far back as 1981 here at NYPL's Schwarzman Building (http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b10758987~S1). You can also read its more recent issues online (http://catalog.nypl.org/record=b19512289~S1) at any NYPL library or from home using your library card.

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