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