The questionable birth of Times New Roman

Here's some interesting history for font-heads*.

Times New Roman has, as we know, become the default type for everything from school term papers to magazines. It's usually attributed to Stanley Morison, who "oversaw" the design for The Times of London newspaper in the 1930s. (Their previous font was, appropriately, Times Old Roman.)

But there has long been evidence that Times New Roman was either one of those good ideas that was had by more than one person around the same time period, or Morison picked up the font from another source and had nothing to do with the design at all.

Evidence found in 1987 — drawings for letters and corresponding brass plates — suggests that the real father of the font wasn’t a typographer at all, but a wooden boat designer from Boston named William Starling Burgess.Burgess is famous in his field for having designed inventive, beautiful yachts (including three that won the America’s Cup), planes for the U.S. Navy and Wilbur and Orville Wright, and some experimental cars.

But before he accomplished any of those things, Burgess — in 1904, when he was only 26 — had a brief and brilliant flirtation with typography. He wrote to the U.S. branch of the Lanston Monotype Corp. requesting that a font be made to his specifications. He planned to use it on company documents at his nascent shipyard in Marblehead, Mass. He penciled letters and mailed them in. Some work went into creating the font on the corporation’s end — a few brass plates of the letters were cut — but then Burgess abandoned the project to partner with the Wright brothers. Lanston Monotype tried to sell the fledgling font to Time magazine in 1921, but it declined the offer, and Burgess’ unfinished project, simply labeled “Number 54,” was shelved for more than half a century.

Burgess' plans were eventually used to create the font Starling. Today, the Times attributes Times New Roman to Morison and “perhaps” Burgess, which is about the best they can do with the available information.

It would be really interesting to know if Times New Roman were based on "Number 54" or if it was a coincidence. But time, and World War II, pretty much erased all the records that could have proved it one way or the other.

*You know what I love about BoingBoing? That I can be fairly certain there are more a dozen font-heads reading this.

Via Jack El-Hai


  1. Technically speaking “Times New Roman” is a typeface, not a font. A “font” is a specific subset of a typeface, like “Times New Roman Bold Italic, 12 point.” (That’s two of us so far…)

    1. True. AP style would have you write it as The (London) Times to clarify that “London” isn’t part of the title and is only there to tell you where the paper is published. Stylebooks that visually distinguish newspaper titles might accept something like “The Times” of London, with London outside the quote marks or italics.

    2. Thanks for pointing that out, it always bugs the life out of me when I see it referred to as “The Times of London”.

      Edit, count me in to the “font-head” group too.

  2. OK, got to step up, claim membership as a fontfan.
    Ever run into literature where fonts play a role in the plot?

    1. _The Stars My Destination_! Leafing through an anthology of SF novellae, the ending to Alfred Bester’s souped-up Pilgrims Progress reached out and grabbed my eight-year-old eyes forty-one years ago, and hasn’t let go yet.

    2. There is a recent play by Jordan Harrison, called “Futura”, in which the protagonist is an expert on typopgraphy, and spends the first third of the play giving a lecture on the history of typefaces.

  3. And another. Oh, the hours spent with a Letraset catalogue trying to match a typeface for a customer, redrawing logotypes from a scan in Corel and Illustrator because the cost of buying in the font was prohibitive, casting off type from tables when laying out a book from a manuscript for the typesetters. Sadly just a fond memory now.
    I always preferred Helvetica to Univers, you know, and Garamond to Times New Roman. *sigh*

    1. Totally Agree, Garamond is one of my all time favourite serifed fonts, probably tied with Baskerville

        1. For digitized versions I tend to use Adobe Gramond Pro the most at work, but I have a bit of a soft spot for Stempel Garamond and I find it looks nicer when printed.

      1. what about Galliard?  You gotta like Galiard!  (I’m irrationally attached to Cochin too, but I accept that it isn’t for everyone…).  Times New Roman?  Bleh.  At least it’s got serifs.

  4. Font 54, where are you?
    It’s a good day when I recognize a typeface on the street and can greet it as though spotting an old friend.  (I try to do that with insects, too.)

  5. I wrote a bit about this back when it was originally news in Serif (a few back issues are available from amazon, not sure if the one where I wrote about this is one of them or will be) and earlier this year deposited a bunch of papers relating to this with the special collections department of Denison Library at Scripps College. 

    Mike Parker is certainly a great raconteur and he makes a good case for his version of history, but it’s not exactly an open and shut case. There’s good evidence to point towards the canonical story that Times New Roman is a refined version of Plantin as Stanley Morison claimed.

  6. Nope, not me.  Somebody has to be the font-foe around here.  Long as I can read it, I don’t care.

    I actually have to deal with kerning and typography as part of my job, and it’s kinda the least interesting part of my job.  But y’all carry on without me.  I’ll catch up with ya on the SF/candy/civil liberties threads.

    1. “I actually have to deal with kerning and typography as part of my job, and it’s kinda the least interesting part of my job.”

      You and everyone under 35. Kerning these days usually means working out whether to use ‘optical’ or ‘metrics’.

      But when I do a logo or sometimes even a display heading I’ll always spend some time on kerning. Its very satisfying to watch type turn into typography, quite magical. I don’t get to do enough of it.

      Edit: I probably wouldn’t call myself a ‘font-head’, any more than any other designer. Also it sounds a bit weird.

  7. Speaking as someone who was setting lead type in 1969, was called a “letterhead” in 1976, and watched the film “Helvetica” for fun last weekend, I agree with Mr. Brainspore. It’s not a font, it’s a typeface! (Sigh.) It’s going to be a losing battle, though, I’m afraid. “Font” is a shorter word, and you can’t argue with Zipf’s law.

    1. I like Letterhead.  Has a certain dash of panache about it.  Font-head just screams ‘instruction guide to baptism’ to me.

      Young ‘uns today, grumble, grumble, mumble, ‘Get off my lawn!’

  8. Starling Burgess was a seriously cool dude.  Harvard, cocaine, lotsa wimmins, general badboyitude, etc., etc.  Begging for a biopic, or a good biography.  I’ve been fortunate enough to have crewed, raced, and cruised aboard one of his boats, the P-Class CHIPS, still kicking ass in the wooden boat race circuit in New England. Not certain he can claim any Cup boats as entirely his own, though he did have a hand in RANGER, the 1937 J-Class Cup winner mostly done by N.G. Herreshoff, “the Wizard of Bristol.” His father, Edward Burgess, did design PURITAN, MAYFLOWER and VOLUNTEER, which had won the 1885, 1886, and 1887 America’s Cup challenges, respectively. He, too, was a Harvard guy – professor of entomology – before getting into the marine architecture trade.

    Tasha Tudor, seriously cool in her own right, was Starling’s daughter. Her birth name, in fact, was Starling Burgess – see the wikipedia entry for background on that….

    (edit: My mistake – RANGER was a Sparkman & Stephens design, not Herreshoff, though constructed at the Herreshoff yard in Bristol, RI. WSB was more involved with ENTERPRISE and RAINBOW, the 1930 and 1934 Cup defenders, both J-Class. Jaw droppingly, he was also the chief engineer and detail designer of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion car. This guy was everywhere…)

  9. Typophile checking in here. I skipped out on senior prom back in high school to go see Helvetica. 

  10. Yeah, OK, count me in. I remember being obsessed with Letraset when I first worked in drawing offices, and taking home all the half-used sheets with no Ss or Es left in them. I regularly crashed my early computers by trying to store too many fonts (ok, typefaces). Don’t much care for Times New Roman though.

  11. OK… typehead here as well. Been hand setting lead type for more years than I want to admit, letterpress printer with Ludlow, Monotype and Linotype casting background. Times New Roman is – well – meh I much prefer Century (not Century Schoolbook – just plain Century) over TNR. Garamond is a good second, Caslon or Goudy as *also ran*. So you will see my bias toward the serif face, but, then I have mostly been a book printer and believe that serif faces are more readable, on the whole. (YMMV)

  12. I am much more an auralhead then a vizhead. My love of absorbing info from books has led me to appreciate any font can read ‘through’ for log bits of time/space. Helvetica annoys me after more than fifteen to twenty pages, for some reason.

    1. None of the Helveticas were really intended as a text font for continuous reading… they lack sufficient contrast and they are too “closed”—for example, look at the upper case C; it’s virtually a closed circle. Reading a long text set in Helvetica becomes fatiguing.

      1. *blink blink* like I typed, I am so much more an auralhead…. derpy derp derp… thanks for pointing out the exceedingly obvious — I for one need and appreciate it!

  13. To be perfectly pedantic: a font is not a design subset, but a physical instantiation of a typeface. “Alas, I have pied my new 12 point font of Times New Roman Bold Italic.” Wikipedia has a reasonable explanation:

    This concept has no relevance to computer typesetting, so the reappropriation of the term in that context is understandable.

  14. I’ve actually hand set type where the “leading” was indeed made of lead. Add another to the queue. (Font heads still like to read.)

  15. Off topic: Will someone please make Times Ext Roman for the Mac; Gentium Plus is killing me.

  16. So does anyone know what Times Old Roman looks like? Is it one of those classic beauties, thrown out for the sake of change? Or is it just ugly to?

    (Mods – the cursor keys don’t seem to work in the edit box?)

  17. I’m a lucky girl who got the best of both worlds as an education. I attended h.s. in the eighties, so I learned traditional techniques first, then as computers caught up I developed design skills on them. I can explain to someone as I hand design a logo exactly what I mean when I say I can edit a few letters to make a unique “ligature” for them. 

    I’ve always been a fan both of unique typesetting (like e.e.cummings’ poetry) and of the artistic use of fonts in literature and design. So much of the type we see everyday has a rich history (who designed it and why?) that is overlooked simply because of type’s functionality and accessibility (if you’re not paying the designer, you don’t think about the design). It’s only when the function of type is elevated beyond the pedestrian that people are reminded of the craftsmanship needed to design a truly great typeface.

  18. The unofficial “No parking on Sundays” sign someone has put up outside my office, made by a professional sign company from the same super-reflective + metal material as the official no-parking sign, annoys me on the rare occasion it’s not obscured by a parked car. It uses Comic Sans. (It should use Transport, an excellent typeface. It would then be indistinguishable from an official sign.)

  19. I never got the impression that Morison was the creative talent behind the font. I saw him more as the senior tradesman that put all the pieces together to solve a particular problem. 

    That Parker had to do a little crafting to Number 54 leads me to think what Burgess had was more of a headline font than a book font. 

  20. Any font/typeface were the letters l and O, and number 1 and 0 are indistinguishable are failures.

    1. While they’re fun topics to read about, I care deeply only about computer fonts as usable by programmers, rather than about typography, or typefaces.

      Heartilly agree that the often confused character groups like ¦|Il1i 0Oo ‘` ., ;: £# absolutely should be distinguishable even down to the smallest usable point sizes, with or without font smoothing, at least in monospaced typefaces.

      For me, the big criteria is clarity and legibility at very low point sizes, which I suspect is something that stopped being trendy for the typographic artists about a decade ago, once they had enough resolution to truly express themselves. Actually viewing a font below 12point, and on a computer screen no less, seems kind of looked down upon as being a necessary evil, with unavoidable degradation of the beauty of the font, rather than being the desired use of one’s font, for which it has been most lovingly optimised.

      There are exceptions, though. The best font set I’ve found for coding is Lucida Console, and while it looks great at high-res, you can really see the love and care that has been put into making it legible and the glyphs distinguishable at low res, right down to 6pt, while making very few style concessions: no massive asterisks the size of at-signs, etc.

      I’m interested in experimenting with other good console fonts though, if people have suggestions.

      “Font head” sounds like a baptismal lavatory.

      1. “Font head” sounds like a baptismal lavatory.

        Having lost my virginity in a baptismal tub, it has a slightly different meaning to me. Funnily enough, I’ve never been baptized. There’s an In Soviet Russia joke in there somewhere.

  21. Morison was primarily a director rather than a designer. Even with Times New Roman, which he did claim as his own design, according to Nicolas Barker’s bio, another man drew the letters to his specifications. For most of the first half of the 20th c. typefaces were designed and produced through an elaborate industrial process, involving many hands in ways not merely mechanical.

    Type design is a matter of reference and nuance, particularly with text faces. It’s hard to prove this sort of thing, particularly with no physical evidence. While a claim of exaggeration on Morison’s part might seem possible, calling it plagiarism is going a bit far.

    I’d go with Don Hosek, someone who, unlike myself, actually knows what he is talking about!

  22. The old typeface used by The Times wasn’t called “Times Old Roman”, it was just known as a “modern”, as the general style had been called since around 1800.

  23. I don’t know if I’m a font-head, but I understand and empathize with the hatred of Comic Sans. It just screams unprofessional and not-knowledgeable-about-computers to me. “Oh this font looks cute, let’s use it.” It’s like eye-poison; I’m so sick of it.

    Times New Roman used to look ugly to me, but I got used to it pretty quickly since it was the default for school papers.

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