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The Origins of Spline-Based Fonts

Typographica on March 23, 2004

Time for a little history. In the late ’70s, John Warnock helped to create a technology called Interpress while at Xerox PARC. Using lines and “splines”, the page description language could rasterize images on-the-fly, allowing scaling, rotating and other transformations. Warnock soon left Xerox and co-founded Adobe, taking the technology with him. Interpress would become PostScript, the language that spawned Type 1 fonts, the first standard for digital typography. Warnock and Adobe are credited with making possible the output of scalable type.


But scientist William Donelson recalls creating spline-based fonts years earlier. At Folklore.org, the website devoted to Macintosh nostalgia, Donelson describes how he developed a similar concept while working with Bob Sproull at the National Institutes of Health in 1971. There are no hard feelings, though. When Donelson met Warnock he gave it to him gently, saying “John, don’t worry. I had an idea 18 years ago, and you and Adobe did all the real work.”

Some of Donelson’s original work is cited in his 1978 SIGGRAPH article, Spatial Management of Information. He also tells me about his experience creating anti-aliased type long before it became a PC standard:

I was the first that I know of to generate anti-aliased bitmap fonts, at the Architecture Machine Group of MIT (now the Media Lab) in 1973. We used 2-bits (4 gray levels) to de-jaggy the fonts which were captured via a video camera and hand edited. I also tried an automated anti-aliasing system, but hand-editing turned out the best.

5 Comments

  1. Fazal Majid says:

    Donald Knuth describes splines in “Mathematical Typography”, a lecture given in 1978, and reprinted in his book Digital Typography. He acknowledges Warnock, though.

  2. Fazal Majid says:

    Splines themselves are based on polynomials invented by a mathematician named Bernstein in 1912, and first applied to automobile CAD by Renault engineer Pierre Bezier in the late fifties.

  3. M Bezier says:

    I think theyre called Beziers, rather than Warnocks, for a reason

  4. Lovely to have you here, Mssr. Bezier. To clarify, I did not mean to credit Warnock with the creation of splines, only his use of splines to create the PostScript language.

  5. Carl de Boor says:

    splines were given that name by I.J. Schoenberg in a 1946 article. Bernstein, much earlier, invented what we now call the Bernstein form for describing a polynomial (in the process of proving the Weierstrass approximation theorem). A. R. Forrest pointed out that B’ezier’s way of writing a cubic polynomial was akin to Bernstein’s way, with Bernstein’s way preferred.

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Typographica is a review of typefaces and type books, with occasional commentary on fonts and typographic design. Edited by Stephen Coles and designed by Chris Hamamoto. Founded in 2002 by Joshua Lurie-Terrell. Relaunched in 2009 by Coles and Hamamoto.

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