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Origins of Spline-Based and Anti-Aliased Fonts
Author: William Donelson
Date: January 1989
Characters: William Donelson, John Warnock, Bob Sproull
Topics: Origins, Software Design
Summary: Creation of the first spline-based font system

While working on a spring sabatical from high school in April and May of 1971, I worked in the computer department of the National Institutes of Health in Maryland.

I was assigned to work on the PDP-6 and PDP-10 with several people, including Dr Bob Sproull.

They had a Calcomp Film Plotter which used an electron beam to draw on film, thus allowing high resolution output, e.g. for publishing.

Bob asked me to investigate ways to make zoom-able fonts, which could also be distorted into a sort of italic, etc.

I studied the problem for a week or so, and concluded the best way to do this was a combination of straight lines and splines. I developed a list structure to store fonts. As examples, I did the letters "I" (of course) and "P" (just to prove the point).

This idea worked very well, and I gave a demo on the PDP-6's vector display system, set into raster mode. The characters could be scaled and slanted to "italic" quite easily, and could be shown as outlines or as filled characters.

(I also did a fsimple ighting video game on the display, "Germs" of course)

I then went off to MIT for ten years.

Fast forward to MacWorld, January 1989. I had taken a job at a Silicon Valley company doing Mac storage and video products, and was invited to a breakfast with John Warnock.

During breakfast, I mentioned to him that I was the originator of the spline-based font system. He looked shocked, and distinctly nervous! Apparently, he and Bob Sproull were associates, and he was afraid I was going to make claims or something!

I laughed, and put his mind to rest: "John, don't worry. I had an idea 18 years ago, and you and Adobe did all the real work". He laughed and relaxed a bit, but I'll never forget the expression on his face!

A Lesson In Diplomacy
Back to The Original Macintosh
Revolution in the Valley

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Typo "fsimple ighting"
It might have been nice if you had argued it, since the world at large is still bound by companies that have patented font techniques and open source projects have to ship with cruddy font systems by default until you recompile to turn on the nice features. I can't say I think that software patents have done anything good for the industry and it seems easy to me to point out the damage they have done in allowing monopolies on ubiquitous technologies. Between Adobe, Xerox, Apple and Microsoft there are a lot of things youre not allowed to do yourself to make nice looking text on a regular screen.
Around 1972 there was a FORTRAN program at our computer center that could generate high-resolution text posters. It was all based on equations so the characters could be printed at any resolution, no font bitmaps anywhere to be seen.
Interesting story. I think there is a typo and the line “(I also did a fsimple ighting video game…” should be “( I also did a simple fighting video game…”. That said, the last paragraph makes me think how those terrible patent troll companies act very differently than William did with John Warnock…