February 23rd, 2006

Splinter: Sensei

Fondue Connections

Author's Note: I *know* I play a bit fast and loose with some details here for readers' sake, having limited time for in-depth research and writing. So be it. Enjoy, anyhow!


I was out to dinner last night with my housemates at a little place in Berkeley that specializes in fondue. Lovely melted cheese swirling around in the caquelon (that specialized little fondue pot). As the cheese circled around, so did connections in my brain...

What we would recognize as modern fondue began in Switzerland in 1531. The fondue recipe was invented as a way to deal with a shortage of food from siege and warfare. With only stale, hard cheese and stale, hard bread (and a little liquor -- don't know if they had kirsch, the now-traditional alcoholic ingredient) the Swiss managed to make a servicable meal.

One might wonder what country was attacking that they were so short of food. It was Switzerland. The country was torn by civil war due to the Protestant Reformation. Though Martin Luther had been around for a while, the social and religious unrest of the reformation was long and painful for many european countries.

The public support for the reformation was due to the wide circulation of Martin Luther's 95 theses. This was his list of items challenging the teachings of the Roman Catholic church. According to the story, he nailed a copy to the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany, back in 1517. While that is sometimes disputed, it is clear that he mailed copies to the pope, at least one archbishop, and many universities, which ensured that it was widely read.

The broad dissemination of Martin Luther's theses was an essential part of why the reformation was able to gain popular support. And Martin Luther was able to create a bunch of copies of his document due to the work of an earlier German inventor, Johann Gutenberg. Printing technology was used to create copies of the theses, just as it had earlier been used to create copies of the Bible.

Gutenberg's invention was not the first printing press, but rather the innovation of movable type to make the printing process more viable. He designed his movable type to immitate the Blackletter script of the period. This was the formalized "gothic" calligraphy used when scribes created copies of texts. The relatively square letterforms made it relatively straightforward to partition into movable letters for printing.

Since the appearance of letters was now defined by a set of interchangeable metal chunks, the printing press made typefaces possible. The shapes of letters could be redesigned and kept consistent. Shapes that were difficult to reproduce by hand weren't a problem; a single master carving could be used to reproduce the glyph via a mold process. Gutenberg used lead, alloyed with tin and other agents, to cast his type in molds. (This being the "hot metal" sometimes referred to in typesetting.)

The possibility of typefaces led, naturally, to the rise of type designers. One such designer was Adrian Frutiger from Switzerland. (Back to Switzerland!) He designed Univers, one of the most popular sans-serif typefaces, as well his eponymous typeface, which was based on an earlier work called Roissy. Frutiger began designing typefaces around 1950 and, as such, saw the progression from metal presses, through phototypsetting (photolithography), into modern digital printing. (He designed Herculanum, which comes with MacOS X.)

Now you'll notice that I've been referring to "typefaces", not "fonts". Historically, a font is a specific variety within a typeface (such as condensed-italic). Frutiger even devised a numerical scheme for organizing and referencing fonts. With the introduction of computers, the meaning of font has drifted to sometimes mean a complete typeface, in all its varieties. (Does selecting "bold" change your "font"? Depends on your context for the word.)

But where does this ambiguous word "font" originate? It comes from the french verb fondre, meaning "to melt". It refers to the fact that type is made from molten metal -- the individual pieces which make a "font" are cast metal. This is also why we refer to "font foundries".

Do you know what other word we get from the french verb "fondre"?
Fondue.
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