How I can I find an old-style scientific vector plotter font?
October 16, 2009 8:10 PM   Subscribe

When I was growing up, the graphs in all the science books from the middle of the 20th century had a particular vector-plotted look to them. Did they use a common font (or common plotting system), and how can I duplicate that appearance now?

If you read science books written in the 1950s through 1980s, you probably know what I'm talking about - lots of these graphs and diagrams looked very consistent. It's a very simple sans-serif font and in practice often included many oblique or greek characters. I assume it was just a standard font on a common vector plotter at the time. I'd love to know 1) if the font has a name, or (more likely) if it's just some standard plotter font, what that plotter was, and 2) how I can most easily find a font that looks like that for nostalgic use today.

Some examples:
- Circuits, Signals, and Systems: click "Look Inside" and look at the diagrams on the first few pages.
- Mathematics: Its Content, Nethods and Meaning: for example, the graphs on page 107.
- I think the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics books have graphs like this but I'm having trouble finding examples online.
posted by dfan to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I believe the font built in to HPGL (HP pen) plotters was either Hershey Roman or something based closely on it. These are a very old and odd format but you can find some references on the net now. If you are a programmer you will possibly be able to use them in your applications (I have - they have a permissive license), but if you hope to use them in a modern application like MS Office you will probably not find a way.
posted by fritley at 8:40 PM on October 16, 2009

Those don't quite look like the Hershey fonts to me, but they are a very familiar draftsmanlike font. The body text of Circuits, Signals, and Systems looks like it was typeset with TEX in Computer Modern Roman, but I think the graphs' look predates digital phototypesetting. Maybe it's from some widely used dry transfer font or stencil?
posted by hattifattener at 10:28 PM on October 16, 2009

They look a lot like ISO 3098 standard drafting fonts. Though they probably aren't meant to be, AutoCAD's TTF versions can be found on the usual sites.
posted by scruss at 4:28 AM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

The diagrams and the letters in them do look to be hand drawn, but in an expert draftsman sort of way. The style is the complete lack of style. And then the annothations and things are one of the standard typesetting fonts.

The original diagram was probably drawn at a larger scale and then photographically reduced. The circuit designators (the squiggly lines and triangles and whatnot) were either stencil or drawn by some other spec. (like, taping a standard drawing in and photographing it slightly hot to blend out the edges of the paper). I used to be pretty good at this with a Xerox machine.
posted by gjc at 5:08 AM on October 17, 2009

Response by poster: The Simplex Roman and Greek characters from the Hershey fonts displayed here look like exactly what I was thinking of, thanks.

The examples I gave from Circuits, Signals, and Systems were in fact slightly different from the ideal form I had in my head, but ISO 3098 looks like a good match for them. I dug up my copies of the Feynman books and those totally had the canonical look I was looking for, which matches the Hershey fonts.
posted by dfan at 7:05 AM on October 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

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