Bruce Rosenblum switched on his Apple II, which rang out a excessive F present followed by the clatter of the floppy force. After a string of thock thock keystrokes, the 12-streak Sanyo notice began to phosphoresce. A green grid seemed, 16 gadgets extensive and 16 gadgets sizable. This modified into once “Gridmaster,” a program Bruce had cooked up within the programming language BASIC to construct with out a doubt one of the enviornment’s first Chinese digital fonts. He modified into once rising the font for an experimental machine called the Sinotype III, which modified into once among the first non-public computers to tackle Chinese-language enter and output.

On the time, within the unhurried 1970s and early 1980s, there were no non-public computers being built in China. So as to carry out a “Chinese” PC, Rosenblum’s team modified into once reprogramming an Apple II to purpose in Chinese. His checklist of responsibilities modified into once prolonged. He needed to program an operating system from scratch, since Apple II’s DOS 3.3 merely wouldn’t allow the inputting and outputting of Chinese-character texts. Likewise, he needed to program the Chinese observe processor itself, a job he worked on tirelessly for months.

A characterize of the Sinotype III notice reveals the Gridmaster program and the digitization technique of the Chinese character 申 (shen, to prolong).


While Gridmaster would possibly well perchance additionally were a actually simple program, the job that it’s a ways also feeble to total—creating digital bitmaps of hundreds of Chinese characters—posed profound construct challenges. Really, creating the font for Sinotype III—a machine developed by the Graphics Arts Study Basis (GARF) in Cambridge, Massachusetts—took a ways longer than programming the computer itself. With out a font, there will be no formula to portray Chinese characters on show, or to output them on the machine’s dot-matrix printer.

For every and every Chinese character, designers needed to carry out 256 separate decisions, one for every and every doable pixel within the bitmap. (A bitmap is a technique of storing photos digitally—whether as a JPEG, GIF, BMP, or assorted file structure—using a grid of pixels that collectively carry out up a image or an image.) Multiplied across hundreds of characters, this amounted to literally millions of decisions in a pattern job that took extra than two years to total.

Programming Gridmaster—which in hindsight Rosenblum described to me as “clunky to utilize, at only”—enabled his father, Louis Rosenblum, and GARF to farm out the duty of making the digital font. Utilizing any Apple II machine, and working Gridmaster off a floppy disc, recordsdata entry temps would possibly well contain and keep unique Chinese character bitmaps, remotely. As soon as these bitmaps had been created and saved, the Rosenblums would possibly well set up them on the Sinotype III by using a 2nd program (additionally designed by Bruce) that ingested them and their corresponding enter codes into the system’s database.

Sinotype III modified into once by no methodology commercially launched. Nonetheless, the painstaking work that went into its pattern—in conjunction with the pattern of this bitmap Chinese font—modified into once central to a complex world effort to clear up a vexing engineering puzzle: the formula to equip a pc to tackle Chinese, with out a doubt one of basically the most widely feeble languages on Earth.

A characterize of a Sinotype III notice displaying the Chinese bitmap font.


On the advent of computing and observe processing within the West, engineers and designers certain that a low-resolution digital font for English would possibly well perchance be built upon a 5-by-7 bitmap grid—requiring only five bytes of memory per image. Storing all 128 low-resolution characters within the American Traditional Code for Data Interchange (ASCII), which entails each and every letter within the English alphabet, the numerals 0 by 9, and standard punctuation symbols, required factual 640 bytes of memory—a small fragment of, as an illustration, the Apple II’s 64 kilobytes of onboard memory.

Nevertheless there are tens of hundreds of Chinese characters, and a 5-by-7 grid modified into once too small to carry out them legible. Chinese required a grid of 16 by 16 or elevated—i.e., at least 32 bytes of memory (256 bits) per character. Were one to deem a font containing 70,000 low-resolution Chinese characters, the total memory requirement would exceed two megabytes. Even a font containing only 8,000 of basically the most traditional Chinese characters would require approximately 256 kilobytes factual to store the bitmaps. That modified into once four times the total memory ability of most off-the-shelf non-public computers within the early 1980s.

As excessive as these memory challenges had been, basically the most taxing complications confronting low-res Chinese font production within the 1970s and 1980s had been ones of aesthetics and construct. Lengthy sooner than anyone sat down with a program cherish Gridmaster, the lion’s share of labor took command off the computer, using pen, paper, and correction fluid.

Designers spent years looking for to model bitmaps that fulfilled the low-memory requirements and preserved a modicum of calligraphic class. Amongst other folks that created this character situation, whether by hand-drawing drafts of bitmaps for explicit Chinese characters or digitizing them using Gridmaster, had been Lily Huan-Ming Ling (凌焕銘) and Ellen Di Giovanni.

Draft bitmap drawings of Chinese characters for the Sinotype III font.


The core command of affairs that designers confronted modified into once translating between two radically assorted ways of writing Chinese: the hand-drawn character, produced with pen or brush, and the bitmap glyph, produced with an array of pixels organized on two axes. Designers needed to take dangle of how (and whether) they had been going to select a explore at to re-contain obvious orthographic points of handwritten Chinese, comparable to entrance strokes, stroke tapering, and exit strokes.

Within the case of the Sinotype III font, the technique of designing and digitizing low-resolution Chinese bitmaps modified into once thoroughly documented. One among basically the most attention-grabbing archival sources from this era is a binder stout of grids with hand-drawn hash marks all the scheme by them—sketches that would possibly well later be digitized into bitmaps for a lot of hundreds of Chinese characters. Every of these characters modified into once in moderation laid out and, normally, edited by Louis Rosenblum and GARF, using correction fluid to erase any “bits” the editor disagreed with. Over prime of the initial situation of green hash marks, then, a 2nd situation of pink hash marks indicated the “closing” draft. Most efficient then did the work of recordsdata entry open up.

A shut-up of a draft bitmap drawing of bei (背, relief, rear) exhibiting edits made using correction fluid.


Given the sheer different of bitmaps that the team wished to construct—at least 3,000 (and ideally many extra) if the machine had any hopes of pleasant customers’ desires—one would possibly well perchance lift that the designers seemed for ways to streamline their work. A technique they’d well additionally enjoy performed this, as an illustration, would were to duplicate Chinese radicals—the unfavourable ingredients of a character—after they seemed in roughly the identical command, measurement, and orientation from one character to 1 other. When producing the many dozens of fashioned Chinese characters containing the “woman radical” (女), as an illustration, the team at GARF will enjoy (and, in opinion, will need to enjoy) created factual one standard bitmap, and then replicated it internal each and every character wherein that radical seemed.

No such mechanistic decisions had been made, on the different hand, because the archival materials portray. Quite the opposite, Louis Rosenblum insisted that designers regulate each and every of these ingredients—ceaselessly in practically about imperceptible ways—to carry out obvious they had been in harmony with the total character wherein they seemed.

Within the bitmaps for juan (娟, handsome) and mian (娩, to bring), as an illustration—each and every of which contains the girl radical—that radical has been modified ever so a microscopic. Within the character juan, the middle piece of the girl radical occupies a horizontal span of six pixels, as when in contrast with five pixels within the character mian. On the identical time, on the different hand, the backside-merely curve of the girl radical extends outward factual one pixel extra within the character mian, and within the character juan that stroke would now not prolong the least bit.

The bitmap characters for juan (娟, handsome) and mian (娩, to bring) from the Sinotype III font, recreated by the author.


Across the total font, this level of precision modified into once the guideline in preference to the exception.

After we juxtapose the draft bitmap drawings against their closing kinds, we explore that extra adjustments were made. Within the draft model of luo (罗, gain, gather), as an illustration, the backside-left stroke extends downward at a excellent 45° attitude sooner than tapering into the digitized model of an outstroke. Within the closing model, on the different hand, the curve has been “flattened,” foundation at 45° however then leveling out.

A comparison of two draft versions of the character luo (罗, gain, gather).


Despite the reputedly small space wherein designers needed to work, that they needed to carry out a staggering different of picks. And each and every one of these decisions affected each and every assorted decision they made for a explicit character, since adding even one pixel ceaselessly modified the total horizontal and vertical steadiness.

The unforgiving measurement of the grid impinged upon the designers’ work in assorted, surprising ways. We explore this most clearly within the devilish command of affairs of reaching symmetry. Symmetrical layouts—which abound in Chinese characters—had been especially refined to characterize in low-resolution frameworks because, by the foundations of arithmetic, creating symmetry requires irregular-sized spatial zones. Bitmap grids with even dimensions (such because the 16-by-16 grid) made symmetry no longer doable. GARF managed to total symmetry by, in many cases, using only a fragment of the total grid: factual a 15-by-15 role internal the total 16-by-16 grid. This lowered the amount of usable space even extra.

Symmetry and asymmetry within the characters shan (山, mounting), zhong (中, middle), ri (日, sun), and tian (田, self-discipline).


The story becomes grand extra complex after we talk in self belief to compare the bitmap fonts created by assorted corporations or creators for assorted initiatives. Effect in thoughts the water radical (氵) because it seemed within the Sinotype III font (under and on the merely), as against one other early Chinese font created by H.C. Tien (on the left), a Chinese-American psychotherapist and entrepreneur who experimented with Chinese computing within the 1970s and 1980s.

A comparison of the water radical (氵) because it seemed within the Sinotype III font (merely) versus an early Chinese font created by H.C. Tien (left).


As minor because the above examples would possibly well perchance seem, each and every represented yet one other decision (among hundreds) that the GARF construct team needed to carry out, whether all the scheme by the drafting or the digitization piece.

Low resolution did now not save “low” for prolonged, truly. Computing advances gave upward thrust to ever denser bitmaps, ever quicker processing speeds, and ever diminishing costs for memory. In our present age of 4K resolution, retina displays, and extra, it’s a ways also onerous to cherish the artistry—both dazzling and technical—that went into the advent of early Chinese bitmap fonts, as itsy-bitsy as they had been. Nevertheless it modified into once command of affairs-fixing cherish this that indirectly made computing, unique media, and the gather accessible to 1-sixth of the world inhabitants.

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