Apple's ancient Macintosh Font Editor app

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Mark Simonson
Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
edited May 21 in Font Technology
I've been down a rabbit hole lately digging into an early Macintosh development tool called "Font Editor." This was the tool that (I assume) Susan Kare and Bill Atkinson used to create the iconic bitmap fonts that came with the original Macintosh. I also have heard that it was the app that Zuzanna Licko used to create the earliest Emigé fonts.

I sent for Apple's "Software Supplement" ($100 + tax) in late 1984. I received a pile of disks containing developer tools, including Font Editor, which I used in late 1984 to early 1985 to make some bitmapped fonts. I developed these further using Fontastic when it was released in spring 1985 by Altsys. (If you're wondering, I never ended up doing anything with the twenty or so fonts I made, although I did used to offer them for free on my website in the early days of my site. One of them, Condensed Gothic, wound up being licensed by the Pebble watch people. When Altsys released Fontographer, I lost interest in making bitmap fonts.)

Anyway, I've been trying to reconstruct my methods for using Font Editor because I honestly have forgotten most of how it worked. It's an incredibly primitive and fragile tool meant for internal use at Apple and by its developers. It would be replaced by ResEdit, but ResEdit was more of a general purpose tool and less capable as a font editor in my opinion, in spite of being more polished.

If you have a Macintosh 128K or 512K, or a 128K emulator (it won't run on anything else, AFAIK), you can find disk images for it here. (The one you want is "MacStuff 2 2/85", which is a bootable disk containing Font Editor.)

Through trial and error, I've managed to figure out mostly how it works and how to use it (probably going through the same process as I did in 1984—I recall there was no documentation, or very little). Ultimately, I'm going to put together a how-to guide and (I hope) post a video about it on YouTube. Not that anyone would likely want to use this app now, but to show how things were done in the early days of digital fonts.

I was wondering if anyone else here remembers or used this app, or perhaps has any documentation for it. 

(Below is a screenshot showing it running in Mini vMac with one of the fonts I made with it.)


Comments

  • tom_deforest
    tom_deforest Posts: 1
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    I would love to see a video showing how fonts were made in the 80s! (Incidentally, it looks like I also replied to that same Typophile post.)
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited May 21
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    I tried to find videos about making bitmap or screen fonts on the early Mac on YouTube and there's just nothing. FontLab (or maybe Adam Twardoch) posted some demos of early Mac and PC font editors a few years ago, but I wasn't able to find them. There's a demo of an early version of Fontographer here, but the guy is a retro Mac enthusiast, not a type designer, and has little idea how to use it. Nothing about Fontastic or Font Editor turned up. I'm hoping to change that.
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
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    Ah, thanks. No wonder I couldn't find them on YouTube. :smile: 
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited May 21
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    For what it's worth, I've managed to solve all the mysteries of using Font Editor as much as I did when I used it in 1984. I'll be posting a user guide here and on vintage Mac sites soon.
  • PabloImpallari
    PabloImpallari Posts: 784
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    Mark I discovered Phill Martin's work thanks to your your blog posts and now this this about the font editors. Thanks!!! We love you!!!
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited May 23
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    Also, here is a .zip with two disk images containing everything you need to run Font Editor on a real or virtual 128K/512K Macintosh. (Hopefully, Apple won't mind.)

    The 800K one is preferable, especially if you're using it with an emulator. It contains a lot more fonts (including some of mine) and more free space.

    The 400K image is for people who have a real 128K/512K Macintosh with the original 400K internal disk drive and no 800K external drive. There is still enough there to try it out.
  • Stephen Coles
    Stephen Coles Posts: 1,000
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    Excellent thread, Mark! Zuzana Licko did indeed use Font Editor as her first editor. It was used to start the Oakland fonts and others, but not for long because it crashed on her all the time and she was constantly losing work. She soon moved on to Fontastic and Fontographer.
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited May 23
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    Me, too. It had very little tolerance for user error, as if you're just supposed to know what not to do. Instead of reporting an error or beeping, it just crashes the system. When I poked around in it with ResEdit, I only found a couple of error message resources. It also lacked normal things like undo, the clipboard, or open/save dialog boxes. You had to know the name of the font or file you wanted to open ahead of time, or that the filename you chose and were about to save didn't already exist on the disk. And you couldn't just switch to the Finder and take a look because it was before multitasking.
  • John Butler
    John Butler Posts: 266
    edited May 24
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    One could also go still further back, to 8-bit pre-Mac days at Apple, when the incomparable Beagle Bros offered the bitmap font editor in Apple Mechanic, Shape Mechanic and Font Mechanic. I had Shape Mechanic and Font Mechanic on my Apple //c.
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited May 24
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    If you look into the history of Beagle Bros, you might see the name Mark Simonsen. It's not me, just a coincidence. I didn't have an Apple II, but do remember seeing and liking their ads.
  • John Butler
    John Butler Posts: 266
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    Heh, I did notice that a few years ago, and I did a brief double-take. Could be worse—be thankful you’re not confused with an Australian hippy dippy jam band.
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited May 24
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    I was doing some more investigating today and think I may have the answer to my question about creating fonts from scratch with Font Editor: I don't think it's possible. It may be that it was only meant for editing existing fonts, or making new fonts based on existing fonts.

    When you launch the app, it asks for the name of a font, the size, and "NewSize". ("NewSize" lets you scale a font when you load it.) You can give any name you like other than "System", which causes a crash. It beeps twice and opens a blank window, in which it doesn't seem possible to do anything useful. The beeps seem to indicate an error. The name and sizes that you entered don't seem to be used for anything.

    However, I discovered today that if you have a font document on the disk and enter its filename, it will open that document—no beeps. This fact, and the fact that there is no "New Font" command in the File menu leads me to think that you can't make a font scratch in Font Editor.

    This raises the question of where the existing fonts came from in the first place. Most likely, they were created using some earlier method or tool. Andy Hertzfeld says here that before he wrote the Font Manager, fonts used by QuickDraw were just data files. He came up with the idea of storing them as resources. It may be that Font Editor was made to work with these older data file fonts, and that's what the generic "font document" (which it can read and write) is.
  • Craig Eliason
    Craig Eliason Posts: 1,412
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    This raises the question of where the existing fonts came from in the first place.
    It’s tittles all of the way down!
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
    edited June 1
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    I’ve made new disk images and revised the user guide after learning more about how Font Editor works.

    Basically, it’s not possible to make a new font from scratch. You can only edit or modify existing fonts. I believe the Mac developers, working in the years prior to the launch, had some other earlier method or tool for creating fonts from scratch. When you launch the app, it expects you to enter the name of an existing font document from the disk. If you don’t, it will beep and display a blank document that you can’t do anything with.

    Further, the “font documents” that Font Editor can read and write (which are plain data documents, not resources) were probably an earlier font format that QuickDraw used prior to Andy Hertzfeld’s idea of storing them as FONT resources (see folklore.org). Font Editor was probably used to convert this older format into FONT resources and perhaps to create new fonts starting from existing ones (which is the only way you can make new fonts with it).

    The new disk images and user guide have taken this new knowledge into account.
  • Mark Simonson
    Mark Simonson Posts: 1,672
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    I hope to have a demo of Font Editor up on YouTube soon.