The Font that Never Was

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Linotype, Monotype, and the “Phonetic Chinese Alphabet” of 1921
Tom Mullaney
ATypI 2016 • Warsaw, Poland
Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw ASP

Since the invention and popularization of hot metal printing in the United States and Europe, engineers and entrepreneurs dreamt of a day when linotype and monotype technologies would conquer the Chinese language, just as they had Arabic, Armenian, Burmese, Devanagari, Hebrew, Korean, and over one hundred other scripts. In the early 1920s, the much-celebrated release of a new font – the “Chinese Phonetic Alphabet” by Mergenthaler Linotype, and later by the Monotype corporation – led many to believe that the day had finally come. In this presentation, I chart out the quixotic history of Linotype and Monotype’s efforts to enter the Chinese market, examining the linguistic challenges that had long prevented China’s absorption into a Western-dominated “hot metal empire,” the design process by which artists in Brooklyn and London crafted these new fonts, and ultimately the profound cultural misunderstandings that doomed the projects to failure. The presentation closes with a reflection upon the vital importance of history and culture in any translinguistic type design venture, past or present.

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