Anatomy of ATF Type

What is a Type Foundry? A company that makes type.

Metal type diagram

One of the foremost in the US was American Type Foundries (ATF), founded in 1892 when 23 independent type foundries consolidated. These foundries were brought together for several reasons, one being that the Linotype, which produced a line of type, was introduced a few years earlier and was cutting into the sales of hand set type. Another was that the type produced by the various foundries was not systematic — point sizes and baselines varied between companies.

ATF standardized type. Nineteen-twenty-nine was the company’s most profitable year. From there it only declined and its number of typeface offerings did as well. In the early 1950s phototype was on its way of taking over as the predominant typesetting method, cutting into foundry type’s profits even more. In 1958 ATF introduced a phototypesetting machine along with variety of faces on phototypesetting discs.

The ATF phototypsetters had limited success, mostly in newspapers.

By the early 1980s the photo typesetting line was dropped and the foundry assets were sold to Kingsley Machines in 1986.

Today ATF typeface designs are licensed by and sold through Adobe and Bitstream (owned by Monotype) as digital fonts.

Originally a font of hot metal, or relief, type consisted of a varying quantity (depending upon the manufacturer, face and size) of individual pieces of type in a specific face, at a specific size. For example, Times Roman 12 point was one font, while Times Roman 14 point was a different font. The face was the same but the size difference made it a different “font.”

Phototypesetting manufacturers sold “font discs,” which were typically plastic discs, strips or rectangles of high contrast (sometimes adhered to plastic or glass) which contained the negative images of the characters. One disc would produce type from about 6 to 18 points. Other discs or systems were often used for larger (sometimes called display) type.

There were two main reasons for this: first, the negative characters were only about 6 points high on a typical font disc and the machines could only enlarge them to about 18 points. Secondly, as type is re-sized it needs to be re-scaled or re-proportioned to look correct. Resizing from 6 to 18 points is not a major visual problem but above that it does not look correct so you need a new master made for the larger sizes. (Conversely, taking a type face meant for a display size and sizing it down to a book size looks equally odd.)

Electronic (digital) fonts can take the scaling into account automatically, although some fonts meant to be used at large sizes ae sold separately.

Today the terms font and face are often used interchangeably. And old-timers will sometimes refer to these digital type manufacturers as “foundries.”

What did a single ATF character look like? It had heft, it had weight, it had substance. It was three-dimensional. See the accompanying “The Anatomy of ATF Type” from an ATF sales piece published by one of their type dealers. It is available here for viewing and downloading as a 300 dpi PDF file to faithfully recreate the original (9.9MB).

< New font technology on the horizon  |  Remembering Hermann Zapf (Nov. 8, 1918 – June 4, 2015) >

Top ↑