The font of all knowledge…
… was the headline on a lovely essay in yesterday’s Financial Times by Tom Vanderbilt. The peg for it was the announcement last January by the US State Department that it was ditching Courier New 12 as its official font and switching to Times New Roman 14. Not a promising subject, you’d think, but Mr Vanderbilt wove a lovely thought-provoking piece around it. Here are some of the thoughts he provoked in this reader.
1. We take typefaces for granted, but actually they are an extraordinarily important part of our daily environment. They often communicate instantly — almost subliminally — the identy of the sender of a message. For example, Eric Gill’s sans-serif typeface — Gill Sans — always evokes the BBC for me. And, as Mr Vanderbilt argues, it still stands as a symbol of modernity even though it’s 75 years old!
2. Courier became a dominant font by historical accident. It was designed for the IBM electric typewriters which dominated US (and later Western) offices in the 1960s and early 1970s. More importantly, IBM (for some reason) omitted to take a proprietary stake in it — so effectively Courier was released as an open source product! Because the US government used IBM typewriters, Courier therefore became synonomous with official documents, and also documents issued by US courts and legal firms. Which brings me to tangential thought number…
3. Memories of Charles Alan Wright, a famous US academic lawyer who was a good friend and was a member of the same two Cambridge colleges as me. He died in 2000. Charlie was an exceedingly eminent member of his profession: he acted as Richard Nixon’s lawyer in the closing period of his presidency; and for other clients he appeared three times before the US Supreme Court — and won twice. He was an amazingly prolific writer, reeling off long essays on legal and other topics, letters, reviews and reports. And all in Courier 12. So I never see the font without thinking of Charlie, and remembering one lovely thing he did.
In the Autumn of 1999 he visited Cambridge and there was a dinner for him in Emmanuel. My book had just been published, and I had just received two of the first hardback copies from the publisher. I gave one to Charlie with a dedication to him and thought no more of it. Indeed, I didn’t really expect him to read it — after all, what interest would a history of the Net have for an academic lawyer? But on the way back across the Atlantic on the QE2 (he always travelled in style — Concorde out, QE2 back) he read it thoroughly — and then posted the first ‘reader’s review’ on Amazon! I’ve no doubt that he printed off the draft in Courier 12. He was a devout Republican and very conservative in many ways. But he had a fine mind and a generous heart, and I miss him still.
4. Courier also reminds me of another lawyer friend — Larry Lessig, who is one of the great figures of our time, and now Professor of Law at Stanford. When I first started reading Larry’s stuff — long before his Code book — it was all aimed at legal audiences, and written in Courier. (Larry still uses an antique typewriter font for his lecture slides.) One of my ambitions is to live long enough to see him appointed to the Supreme Court. But I guess we will have to wait for a different kind of American President for that to be possible.