ELECTRONIC DISPLAY | UNKNOWN | c. 1950s
For the first eight thousand years of writing, letterforms were free of restriction. Add serifs to your letters, manipulate shape in a million ways, design intricate ligatures, make the ascender on your lower case “h” stretch to the heavens, create letters made from stacked drawings of clown shoes: the world of type design was a world without physical limits. Then came electronics.
Getting early electro-mechanical systems to dynamically display changable text was a pain in the ass. One technique used a system consisting of preset messages painted on a series of flaps attached to a central shaft. Rotate the shaft, and different messages flop into view. Mount together several hundred single-character flap devices and you’ve got yourself a versatile and easy-to-read “split-flap display” message board, the kind you can still see — and hear, as they make their wonderful clack-clack noise each time the sign updates — in train stations and airports.
Flap signs allow freedom of font choice (Helvetica is particularly popular) but they are big clunky complex devices, filled with gears, motors, and relays. What if you want to eliminate all of that?
One of the most widely used mechanics-free electronic displays consists of a matrix of light bulbs that can be illuminated in different patterns to produce different characters. And here — for perhaps the first time in the history of writing — designers found themselves in a situation where the complexity of the font they used had a direct effect on the cost of their display. The more subtle and intricate the letterforms, the more pixel-lightbulbs needed to render it. This forced the adoption of a typeface stripped down to the minimum — a typeface so simple that each letter can be rendered with only 35 lights, arranged in a 7×5 matrix. If you only need to display the numbers 0-9, you can reduce things even further, and use a display of only 15 lights, arranged in a 5×3 matrix grid.
A similar quandary popped up when the first electronic calculators were coming to market. Those devices used displays consisting of tiny light emitting diodes (LEDs), each one capable of displaying a tiny line segment. Similarly to the lightbulb displays, turning on the LED lines in different patterns could create different characters. Designers realized that if all you needed to display was numbers, just seven segments arranged in a pattern like the number “8” could do the job (14 segments if you needed to display letters).
Both of these techniques produce letterforms created by necessity, composed of strokes and dots of pure information. Products — and visual symbols — of the electronic age.