In his apartment overlooking the fishing docks of Portland, Maine, Mike Parker was putting the final touches to a font, thinning a few obstinate serifs and thickening some delicate stems. The typeface he was working on was instantly recognisable, even to those with no interest in letterform. It looked just like Times New Roman. Yet on Parker’s sample sheet it was marked by a different name. “I call it Starling, after the man who originally drew it,” he said.

The release of Starling in June presented not just a new font, but a challenge to the accepted history of one of the most widely used typefaces in the world. And after a lifetime spent in typography, Parker was well aware of the controversy he was getting involved in: typography may present a genteel exterior, but it’s an art form punctuated by bitter rivalries and rampant plagiarism.

The case that Parker makes about the real origins of Times New Roman stands on narrow foundations. The sole piece of surviving evidence for his version of history is a brass pattern plate bearing a large capital letter B. He holds the plate up to show the familiar form of the letter, its characteristic curves and serifs. The point, he says, is that such pattern plates represent a technology that was not used after 1915. The creation of Times New Roman was announced in 1932.

Eighty-year-old Parker is one of the world’s leading experts on type. As the head of typographic development at the once-formidable Mergenthaler Linotype company in New York from the 1950s to the 1970s, he had enormous influence over the fonts available to the American public. It was his decision to introduce Helvetica to the Linotype library, creating a design legacy still evident today. But ever since he received an invitation in the early 1990s to view some interesting archival material, Parker’s time has been consumed by the hunt to solve a mystery.

The invitation came from the late Gerald Giampa, an eccentric Canadian master printer who, in 1987, purchased the remnants of the Lanston Monotype company. Giampa delved into the company’s archive, where he claimed to have unearthed documents that refer to a typeface known only as Number 54 – the font, Parker says, that we now know as Times New Roman. Except that these documents dated from 1904, and bore the name of a different designer: William Starling Burgess.

“Gerald sent me some pattern plates and said, ‘Do these look familiar?’” Parker said. “I said ‘yes, they’re Times Roman.’ He said, ‘No, they’re much earlier than that.’”

William Starling Burgess was born into a wealthy Boston family in 1878, and is best remembered as an accomplished naval and aeronautical designer, the builder of yachts for the America’s Cup and aircraft for the Wright brothers. But before embarking on his stellar career on wind and water, Parker believes Burgess had a short but brilliant dalliance with typography.

When Giampa started investigating the Lanston Monotype archives, he claimed to have found correspondence between the company and Burgess, who, in 1904, ordered the manufacture of a font series to be used for company documents at his shipyard in Marblehead, Massachusetts. But before Lanston Monotype could complete the order, Giampa claimed, Burgess witnessed an early flight by the Wright brothers and abandoned his interest in type in favour of aviation. His original drawings were filed at the company as Number 54, and remained on a shelf for years.

Parker says that in 1921 Lanston Monotype tried unsuccessfully to sell the Number 54 font to a fledgling news magazine called Time. Sometime after that, Burgess’s drawings fell into the hands of Stanley Morison, a type consultant at the Monotype Corporation in Britain, by way of Frank Hinman Pierpont, an American who managed that company’s factory in Surrey and who made a career out of reviving old fonts.

In the early 1900s typography was progressing rapidly, but newspapers were failing to keep up with the advances. The Times of London used a chunky serif font that was hard on the eye and wasteful of ink and paper. When Morison criticised The Times for its typeface in 1929, the newspaper challenged him to come up with something better. In his writings, Morison says that he looked to old-style fonts for inspiration, and set upon modifying a 16th-century typeface called Plantin. A sketch sheet was handed to Victor Lardent, a staff illustrator for The Times, who finalised the design. The Morison-Lardent drawings were accepted, and on October 3 1932, The Times went to print with its proud new typeface.

Other accounts, however, suggest that the redesign was far more challenging than Morison admitted. He went through countless failed prototypes and even sought help from outside designers, including the eminent typographer Harry Carter, who sketched some proposals. Years later Carter’s son, Matthew, himself a celebrated typographer, found those rejected sketch sheets languishing in his father’s sock drawer. “When I asked what happened to them, my father just laughed and said Morison had never said a word in reply,” Carter recalls. Parker believes he knows why Harry Carter’s drawings were turned down – Morison had by then been supplied with the pilfered designs of Number 54 by Pierpont. Precisely how Pierpont came upon them, Parker cannot say, but he stands by the theory. “Morison knew no bounds,” says Parker, who has numerous anecdotes about their many encounters that paint a picture of a cunning and devious man. Morison never took credit for designing the font himself, but claims only to have “excogitated” it. Years after its release, he wrote of the only font that he is credited with designing: “It has the merit of not looking as if it had been designed by somebody in particular.”

To date, no one but Giampa and Parker have claimed to have seen most of the evidence that supports the Burgess story. Sadly, no one else is likely to have the chance to verify their claims. In 1918, a fire tore through Burgess’s shipyard, incinerating any documents that might have shed light on his activities during 1904, when Parker suggests he made the original drawings for the new font. On the other side of the Atlantic, a bomb blast near the London offices of Monotype Corporation in 1941 destroyed much information about Morison’s activities during the redesign of The Times’s typeface.

All that remained were the Lanston Monotype archives in Giampa’s possession, until they too met with disaster. In January 2000, Giampa’s house was flooded, and a century’s worth of printing history was lost. “The bulk of the files ended up in a dumpster,” Giampa said. There is a second archive of Lanston Monotype drawings at The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, but it has been placed off limits. Parker visited The Smithsonian in 1996 and took copies of the Number 54 drawings, upon which he based his Starling font. Today, the originals of those drawings are in the Smithsonian’s archival warehouse, which is contaminated by asbestos and lead, and has been closed indefinitely.

In typography, there is no greater insult than the accusation of plagiarism. When Parker began circulating his theory about the origins of Times New Roman, he was howled down by a chorus of critics. British author Nicolas Barker, Morison’s biographer, labelled it “a misguided attempt to adjust history”. “It’s the creation of Mike Parker, who did it partly as a practical joke, and partly to help his friend Gerald Giampa,” Barker says. “Giampa was the potential beneficiary. Had he been able to demonstrate that the design had predated the UK version, there was the possibility to establish a patentable right to the designs, at least in the USA. That’s the only logical reason I can see for them wanting to produce this otherwise rather childish joke.” Parker responds that Barker is a “friend of Monotype” who has written many books and articles about Morison.

Barker and others say Parker has failed to produce any conclusive proof of his theory, but only colourful speculation based on unseen documents. Other critics include Jim Rimmer, a Canadian type craftsman based near Vancouver, who labelled Giampa a “pathological liar”. Rimmer said he had known Giampa for 35 years and called him a “prankster” who created the Burgess story “as a way of making himself look important”.

Matthew Carter, designer of the fonts Georgia and Verdana, is among those who believe the Burgess theory is “very plausible”. He has strong memories of Stanley Morison, a man he believes would stoop to such levels of deception. “I knew Morison and the company [British Monotype], and they were the most arrogant organisation in their heyday,” Carter says. “Morison was a very complex character. He liked playing jokes. He was interested in power, and he liked working behind the scenes. I can believe – though I still don’t know the truth – that he would have enjoyed taking part in a ruse like this.”

The Times newspaper itself has begun accepting the possibility of an alternative history to its famous font. In 2007, the newspaper stated that Times New Roman was designed by Stanley Morison, Victor Lardent “and possibly Starling Burgess”.

Before his death in late June, Giampa defended his reputation. From behind the counter of an antique and curiosity shop on the Vancouver waterfront, the colourful Canadian printer said he had “absolutely not” fabricated the Burgess story, but that it was based on the documents and pattern plates he had unearthed in the Lanston Monotype archive. All of those records were lost in the flood on Prince Edward Island, he said, aside from one pattern plate in the possession of Mike Parker. It is upon this pattern plate that the entire Burgess theory now hangs.

Along with the Starling roman font, Parker has released a matching italic series. He says that in 1904 Burgess drew just five letters of an italic to accompany Number 54 before abandoning typography for aviation. Parker has taken it upon himself to finish the job and has spent the past few years carefully drawing the graceful slanted figures of a rich italic.

“Morison’s was a dog of an italic,” he says of the existing Times New Roman version, which he accepts was a Morison-Lardent creation. “It didn’t match the roman at all. It was a standard Monotype italic.” Now Parker has set out to rectify this by giving the world’s most popular font – no matter its name or creator – a deserving italic. Aside from the five inspirational characters, this is wholly Parker’s own work and, remarkably, it is his maiden typographic creation. Throughout his decades in the industry, Parker remained a creative administrator and researcher but was never himself a typographer.

And this, perhaps, is the real force behind Parker’s enthusiasm for the William Starling Burgess story: it has given him, for the first time, the chance to create a font of his own.

Joel Alas is a freelance writer and editor based in Berlin

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