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A History of Fonts from Ancient Symbols to Modern Typography

A History of Fonts from Ancient Symbols to Modern Typography

You may not have thought much about it, but modern typography is rooted in a long history of the written word. The history of fonts and typography spans multiple eras, from the hieroglyphics of ancient times and handwritten manuscripts to manual typewriting and the modern technology of today.

history of fonts

Prehistoric Era - 20,000 B.C. to 3500 B.C.

Cave Paintings

As far back as 20,000 B.C., humans have been communicating with pictures by painting on the walls of caves. Cave paintings dated from this era may be the earliest examples of recorded writings.

Although prehistoric cave paintings are seen as a type of communication, it wasn't until around 3500 B.C. that the beginnings of formal writing were actually signified.

Ancient Era - 3500 B.C. to 400 A.D.


Sumerians, people of ancient Mesopotamia (now the locations of Kuwait and Iraq), created cuneiforms. A cuneiform, which means "wedge-shaped," is a clay tablet containing standardized symbols that were engraved using a reed.

Cuneiforms were used to record history, tell stories, and write letters in as many as 15 different languages over a period of 3000 years.

Hieroglyphics, Phonograms, and Alphabets

Over the centuries, cultures around the world began developing and advancing. This created a need to improve communications across many complex topics.

Egyptians, well-known for their hieroglyphics, began using symbols in their writings as well as their art and architecture around 3100 B.C.


Around 1600 B.C., a group of people living on the coast of the East Mediterranean (known as Phoenicians) began using symbols that represented actual spoken words. These symbols are called phonograms, and some are used today (e.g., % for "percentage).


By 1000 B.C., the Phoenicians had created the first known alphabet. Later, the Greeks developed their own alphabet, too. The word alphabet itself was derived from "alpha" and "beta," the first two letters of the Greek alphabet.

The Romans created upper case letters based on the Greek alphabet, and are credited for innovations in hand lettering styles and formal scripts.

The Middle Ages - 400 A.D. to 1400 A.D.


The creations of the previous period gave rise to manuscripts characterized by elaborate handwriting and illustrations. This included the use of calligraphy, which means "beauty" and "handwriting" in Greek.

This movement gave rise to calligraphy masters, and the ornamental form of writing was popularized in many cultures including East Asian, Persian, Islamic, and Western civilizations.

Movable Type

Movable type printing, the forerunner to the printing press, was said to be invented by German Craftsman Johannes Gutenberg in the 1400s. However, evidence has shown a less popular approach was used earlier in Asia.

Guttenberg gave people a cheaper and faster way to create manuscripts as opposed to handwriting. This period also marked the first creation of a typeface called blackletter, which was later replaced by the more legible Roman Type.

Modern Era ­- 1400 A.D. to the Future


By the 1500s A.D. printing presses were being used in full force to create what we now know as modern typography. From practical typefaces to decorative typefaces, many typefaces and font sets were created for mass communication. Newspapers, advertisements, and posters were comprised of page layouts and illustrations like never before.

Computer Graphics

Personal computers, which replaced manual typewriters, came on the scene in the 1980s. Both IBM and Apple brought the power of word processing, desktop publishing, and graphic design to homes and offices. Computers allow for endless possibilities in the availability of typefaces and fonts. Today, typography has become all the more important with the advent of the Internet and social media.

Whether a fine artist, graphic designer, or writer, you're sure to find the history of typography to be fascinating. The world of the written word continues to evolve, and there's no telling what the future has in store.

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