We use the term ‘point’ today without worrying just how big it is. We all know that a point is roughly 1/72nd of an inch, but at the turn of the century the point was anything but standard.
I look here at just how big a point is and how we arrived at this figure.
When typefounders were small and spread over the United Kingdom it was natural that printers would use a local foundry.
Founders used their own names — and not point sizes — to describe how big their type was. Names like Brevier (c. 8pt), English (c. 14pt) or Great Primer (c. 18pt) were used but the sizes were not standardised between founders.
You might buy 40lbs of Brevier type from Miller and Richards in Edinburgh and find that it would not be the same size as Brevier type from Stephenson, Blake in Sheffield.
While printers used local founders this did not matter too much, but at the turn of the century when printers wanted to use American types or continental types difficulties arose.
At the same time the Metric system was taking hold in continental Europe: British founders had to do something.
The British Printer from 1901 ran a series of articles covering the discussion; and it gives a good insight in to the attitudes of the different foundries. The question was simple: why do British founders not standardise on the American Point?
The American Point had come in to being because the Mackellar, Smiths and Jordan foundry in the United States had joined the American Typefounders Company and they had the largest stock of type and matrices.
Their point was adopted by the whole group and was embodied by a piece of steel with a flat, overhanging strip bolted to the top and bottom. This piece of steel was 288pt at 62° and the gap between the two overhangs meant that the base piece would not wear.
The size of one point was defined as 0.01387″ or 0.035146cm.
The manager, Mr. Benton, made the remark that the British Standard Point (remember that type was sold by name and not point size) at 1/72nd of an inch was so close to the American Standard that a little accumulation of dirt would bring the two sizes together.
The feeling of the British Printer was that we should all use the American point. This would mean type, materials and other printers’ requisites could all be used interchangeably: no doubt that this would be good for the printer in the long-run.
The British Printer canvassed opinion from the UK founders, and their responses illustrate the perspectives of those firms –
Messrs. V & J Figgins said: ‘…in our opinion there is no prospect of the printers adopting any point system whatever, and those doing so will only add to their difficulties.’ The BP commented only that this quote served a purpose by ‘…shewing the attitude of the foundry’.
Stephenson, Blake said that they were moving to the American Point system and would — for a time — be running both named sizes and the point system
H. W. Caslon were noted as a ‘progressive firm’, and said that adopting the system would be a ‘…great advantage’.
The general view was that most UK foundries had adopted a point system; and most used the American Point. Once all founders moved to the system, Caslon had said they would ‘…rejoice to know that a great reform has been accomplished.’