Nelson Hawks

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Nelson Crocker Hawks (1840–1929) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA on August 21, 1840. He is notable for creating the 12-points-per-inch pica typographical standard [1]. This system was first used by typographers to make the standard-sized letter-blocks used by printers, and now by font designers to make the digital fonts on computers. He held that there should be a standard measurement system for printing, and promoted the idea.

Throughout Hawks' childhood he aspired to become a printer and by the age of 16 he had found employment as a printer's devil (colloquial; apprentice). By the age of 18 had started his own newspaper. In 1874 Hawks moved to San Francisco where he established the Pacific Type Foundry in partnership with Marder, Luse, & Co., type founders of Chicago. In the late 1870s, while head of the Pacific Type Foundry, he developed his point system based on seventy-two points to an inch. He first proposed the system to John Marder when Marder visited California in 1877. Although, like most type founders, Marder was reluctant to accept it, he was convinced by Hawk's persistence. Official announcement from Marder, Luse and Company came in 1879 after it had several new type faces available using the new point system [2].

Hawks refused to patent the system, insisting that it be a "free gift for the benefit of the trade." After resigning from his partnership with Marder, Luse and Company in 1882, he worked tirelessly to advance the point system and have it adopted by other type foundries. By 1902 not only had most foundries in the United States adopted the system, but the British Associated Type Founders had begun using it.

During the 1860s and after there were at least 30 type foundries in America producing hand set type (before the advent of automation or keyboards), and each one had their own way to measure. It was through the persistent efforts of Nelson Hawks that the many foundries in the United States were convinced that the point system should be adopted. After his system became universal in the United States and the United Kingdom, revolutionizing the manufacture of printing type, he was honored by the American Type Founders Association at an event in New York City in 1892 where it was claimed that Hawks' system, "...marks a New Era in the History of Typography, and is the most important improvement in type making since the days Gutenberg[3]."

He lived to see his system become the standard of the English-speaking world. At 80 years old he commented in regards to life: "The only benefit I have derived from it lies in the satisfaction of having been successful in giving the printing craft something useful and lasting." He died on July 2, 1929, at age 89.

Another point system, invented in 1734 by Simon-Pierre Founier of France, was the first point system to be proposed. However it was not widely known. Hawks was not aware of Fournier's work when he developed his own point system, which is the one used today.

See also[edit]

Typographic unit


  • [1] Karl Arhart, paraphrasing information from "Origin of the American Point System" by Richard L. Hopkins.
  • [2] "Explanation of the Point System of Printing Type with Specimens" by Nelson C. Hawks, Island City Press, Alameda, California, 1918.
  • [3] Speech given by 'Mr. Bright of the St. Louis Type Foundry' before the American Type Founders Association, New York City in 1892, as quoted in [2].