Gutenberg and ligatures

From: William_J_G Overington (
Date: Fri Oct 23 2009 - 03:57:37 CDT

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    Some readers may know of the following.

    It is the background accompanying a television programme.

    The conclusion is that Gutenberg did not use punches to make matrices for type casting, instead needing to make a new matrix for each casting, the matrix being destroyed during casting.

    In the following thread I wrote about the implications in relation to the use of ligatures.

    An interesting point is as to why Gutenberg had so many ligatures! With metal type in the twentieth century the making of an additional ligature was a lot of extra work in that an additional metal punch to make metal matrices had to be produced. Today, with electronic fonts, the constructing of an extra ligature glyph also takes extra work.

    Yet was the same true for Gutenberg? Did ligatures in fact save Gutenberg work?

    My reason for thinking that this is a possibility is as follows. In that television program about Gutenberg a researcher had made images of individual characters printed by Gutenberg and found that each character of a sort had small differences which meant that they could not have been made from the same matrix. It is possible that Gutenberg used matrices of whatever material such that the matrix was destroyed during the casting of a character, thus meaning that as many matrices had to be made as there were pieces of type: the invention of a reusable matrix being a later invention, perhaps by another printer.

    So making a ligature character would mean producing at least one less matrix than would have otherwise been the situation! A two-letter ligature would save the production of one matrix, a three-letter ligature would save the production of two matrices. Gutenberg used many ligatures. Perhaps it was a money-saving idea as well as an artistic idea: thus, as one might say, "painting two birds on one canvas" in that one idea served two purposes!

    On 1 September 2005 I was adding some ligature glyphs into the Private Use Area of one of my fonts, a font named Chronicle Text. It is a black letter font.

    I was adding a glyph at U+E70D within the font. It was not a ligature as such, but was two lowercase letters l, side by side. I was thinking about the above idea that Gutenberg may have used many ligatures to save work and it occurred to me that in that case maybe he cast often-used-pairs of letters onto one piece of type so as to minimize the number of pieces of type whilst increasing the number of sorts of pieces of type yet within the limits of only casting pairs, or even triples or longer sets, of characters for frequently used sequences which could be used in various pieces of text.

    I then wondered whether Gutenberg thus might have used far more 'ligatures' than people have thus far detected, simply because those undiscovered ligatures are for items where there is no visible join between the two parts of the ligature.

    Is that a hypothesis which could be tested by measuring the relative positions on the printed page of two characters which might have been so used, for each use of the pair of characters, bearing in mind that there might be several notionally identical sorts for the pair of characters?

    For example, could Gutenberg have had ligatures for bi and pl and so on, ligatures not noticed in print as there is no join of the characters, yet it could have been a way of saving money in the casting process?

    William Overington

    23 October 2009

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