Resurrection of a Typeface: A Lesson for the Digital Age
Last week, Gizmodo reported the discovery of a mysterious typeface that was ‘bequeathed’ to London’s River Thames about 100 years ago. The story began in the late 1800s with T.J. Cobden-Sanderson’s founding of The Doves Press, a letterpress print shop that turned out elegantly printed volumes using a single size of its typeface: Milton’s Paradise Lost, Tennyson’s Seven Poems and Two Translations, and the English Bible.
Cobden-Sanderson’s devotion to perfection and the craft of printing was laudable but The Doves Press could not survive the shift from letterpress to mechanical presses. After a bitter dispute with his ex-partner, Emery Walker, Cobden-Sanderson was allowed to keep the The Doves Type until his death. Rather than allow Walker to possess the typeface, Cobden-Sanderson dumped it into the Thames, and there it rested until 2015.
Fast forward to November 2014. Under the commission of Robert Green, a London designer who extensively researched the typeface and recreated it as the Doves Type font, a team of ex-military divers explored the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge and struck metal…around 100 pieces of The Doves Press type.
Of digits and time
Other than a feeling of nostalgia for the good old days when folks pored every authentic drop of sweat into their craft, is there any connection to today? In our digital age, ownership of physical objects and artifacts is waning. Instead of buying books, records and movies, we stream or download them. Consider the number of things today that may join the typewriter, postcard, encyclopedia and photograph, destined to disappear as a physical object from our lives.
If much of our culture and history only exists as digits, what will be left for future generations to salvage? Will data recoverers delve through hard drives, DVDs, CDs and USB drives to resurrect the ephemera of the past? Even today, the Internet of the early- to mid-90s has largely disappeared. If not for Archive.org’s Wayback Machine, it’s likely that much of the Web would scattered in the wind, much like the colorful sand mandalas
A recent FastCompany article covered the interesting work of Portland’s Andy Baio in preserving the early Internet by digitizing VHS tapes. Or there’s Jason Scott’s work in resurrecting the occasional DOS program and of course, the textfile directory.
As we dip into the murky waters of past centuries, let’s keep in mind that sometimes the explorers of the future can learn something from the past.