Bicycle Couriers

By | January 21, 2015

Last November, I spent a night in Northampton, Mass., and no trip to Northampton can be complete without a stop at the Northampton Brewery. One of the specialties at the time was called the Juggernaut IPA, which was very good. (Hoppy? Well, it was rather like having one’s sinuses filled with thousands of tiny, hyperactive nano-rabbits.) I got to thinking about the word “juggernaut”—and well, why not?—which has always been one of my favorite words, if only because of its etymology.

The word means, says Oxford, “A huge, powerful, and overwhelming force or institution,” as in “WhatTheyThink is an industry information juggernaut.” The word comes from the Sanskrit Jagannātha, one of the names of Krishna. There’s a temple to Jagannātha and an annual celebration that comprises a procession of immense chariots. It has been said, apocryphally, that the more enthusiastic of Jagannātha’s devotees would hurl themselves in front of these chariots and be crushed beneath their wheels.

The ritual itself was first described to the West in the 14th century in a book called The Travels of Sir John Mandeville. The thing is, no one has ever been able to prove that there ever was anyone named John Mandeville who made these travels. In any case, a lot of the things “John Mandeville” wrote about were actually made up.

Be that as it may, it took a few centuries to percolate, but by the 19th century, the word juggernaut had come into prominent use. Charlotte Brontë used it in Jane Eyre and Robert Louis Stevenson used it to describe his titular Mr. Hyde (Jane Eyre and Mr. Hyde—now there’s a mashup I’d love to see!).

H.G. Wells wrote this passage in his 1895 novel The Wheels of Chance:

Anon Mr. Hoopdriver found himself riding out of the darkness of non-existence, pedalling Ezekiel’s Wheels across the Weald of Surrey, jolting over the hills and smashing villages in his course, while the other man in brown cursed and swore at him and shouted to stop his career. There was the Putney heath-keeper, too, and the man in drab raging at him. He felt an awful fool, a—what was it?—a juggins, ah!—a Juggernaut.

The Wheels of Chance is a far cry from what Wells is typically known for (Victorian science fiction) and is subtitled “A Bicycling Idyll.” It was written during what was considered to be “the golden age of bicycling,” those halcyon days before the invention of the automobile. The bicycle had just recently come onto the market and took Europe like…well, like a juggernaut. (If you’ve ever walked in New York City, bicycle couriers almost regularly run down pedestrians like those ostensible devotees of Jagannātha.)

The bicycle went through a bit of an evolution before it became commercially successful, but the precursor was something called the “Laufmaschine” (“running machine”), invented circa 1817 by Baron Karl von Drais. It has been suggested (more via circumstantial evidence than anything else) that von Drais was motivated to invent the Laufmaschine because of a climate anomaly. 1816 has been called “The Year Without a Summer”: due to a combination of low sunspot activity and a series of major volcanic eruptions, global temperatures plummeted by as much as 1.7°F. Indeed, in Europe, it snowed in the summer of 1816. This caused agricultural disasters, which led to the starvation and slaughtering of horses, and thus—among other things—a transportation crisis, since at the time everyone pretty much needed horses to get anywhere. Hence the need for something horseless, and the “horseless carriage” was still a ways away.

Von Drais was a flamboyant character and his life later took a few bad turns: he was fired from his day job as a forester as he was deemed “unfit,” and he got embroiled in retribution for a political murder. For a complicated series of reasons, he had to spend much of his later life in exile in Brazil. He died penniless. The Laufmaschine and what it eventually led to were his legacy—even if he didn’t profit from it in his lifetime—but so is one other thing. He also invented the typewriter. Well, okay, a typewriter. Well, yes, okay, not even a typewriter, really, but more of a shorthand or stenography machine. Wikipedia says that it was the first typewriter with a keyboard, but that’s not really true.

Von Drais invented and marketed two typewriter-like devices, a 25-character model in 1821 and a 16-character model in the early1830s. Von Drais used to claim, in good PR fashion, that his device was capable of typing a thousand characters a minute. Wrote typewriter historian Michael Adler in Antique Typewriters:

That kind of flamboyant extravagance was consistent with the inventor’s well-documented character and, if at all credible, must surely be related simply to the maximum number of random marks the machine was physically capable of making using all fingers…and perhaps a few toes, for good measure (Messenger, 2014).

Ouch. Poor Von Drais; even among his contemporaries he was the Rodney Dangerfield of inventors. At an exhibition of his machine in Frankfurt in 1831, one wag described it as “eine mechanishe Narrheit und Alberne Erfindung” (“a mechanical madness and an absurd invention”). Double ouch.

The typewriter as we know it (assuming there are people who still know what a typewriter is!) was invented by Christopher Latham Sholes. Or, to be more exact:

The fifty-second person to invent the typewriter and the first person to call it that, was Christopher Latham Sholes (Romano, 1986).

The dominance of the typewriter for written communication led to a number of typographic conventions that still remain with us—even if they are anachronisms in today’s word processing, desktop, and online publishing worlds. One of my pet peeves is the tendency to put two word spaces after a period. This is said to date from the Age of the Typewriter, but that is not entirely true. Back before any kind of automated typography, if you wanted justified text, you had little recourse but to noodle with word spacing, and typesetters used to routinely add entire en and em spaces after periods. (Today’s desktop publishing programs noodle far more deftly with a combination of word and character spacing to justify text.)

The practice of adding additional space after periods was later adopted by typewriter users when typewriters were only capable of using monospaced typefaces like Courier. With such faces, each character and each word space has exactly the same width, which adversely affects legibility. The two-word-space convention was thus a visual cue to make it clearer that a sentence had ended. CreativePro has a nice essay on this, saying:

It’s a question of balancing the white space bound up in each character with the spaces around them. In addition, a single word space simply lacks the visual impact to cue the reader that a sentence has ended. The punctuation mark alone, in short, isn’t enough to punctuate the texture of the type flow.

Makes perfect sense in retrospect. But, alas, it makes little sense when using a proportional-width typeface like Times.

Monospaced typefaces like Courier (or a similar typeface called, cleverly enough, American Typewriter) are still common; in fact, they’re required for professional playwrights and screenwriters (monospaced typefaces and standard script formats make it easy to gauge timing). Those of us who have done electronic prepress are no doubt intimately familiar with the infamous “Courier substitution,” or what RIPs used to put into page layouts—or on expensive film—when the correct font wasn’t available, although the advent of PDF has largely made the Courier substitution history. (I remember around late 2000 or so I picked up a print edition of my local newspaper, The Saratogian, and on the front page, every headline and photo caption was in Courier. In the Help Wanted ads, I noticed a big ad saying that the paper was looking for a managing editor. I bet.)

Why was Courier almost always the default font? Why not something more appealing or less obtrusive?

Courier was designed by Howard “Bud” Kettler in 1955 and later redrawn by Adrian Frutiger for the IBM Selectric Composer series of electric typewriters. The typeface had been commissioned by IBM, but the company chose not to copyright, trademark, or patent it—unlike other typefaces—so Courier has always been completely royalty-free. Ergo, this is why it has become so ubiquitous and remains so. No one has to pay for it.

Why the name Courier? It was originally called Messenger, but, Kettler once said, “A letter can be just an ordinary messenger, or it can be the courier, which radiates dignity, prestige, and stability.”

I’m not sure that Courier—or even couriers—still radiate those traits, but that was the thinking.

So thanks to IBM’s decision to not patent or copyright the typeface, Courier, for better or worse, has become a typographic juggernaut.



James Felici, “To Double-Space or Not to Double-Space…,” CreativePro, August 24, 2009,

Robert Messenger, “1000 Characters a Minute! The Karl Drais ‘Typewriter,’” OzTypewriter, Australian Typrewriter Museum blog, January 14, 2014,

“Juggernaut,” Oxford Dictionaries,, accessed December 31, 2014.

Frank J. Romano, Machine Writing and Typesetting, (Salem, N.H. 1986), p. 1.

Tom Vanderbilt, “Courier, Dispatched,” Slate, February 20, 2004,

H.G. Wells, The Wheels of Chance: A Bicycling Idyll,

“Courier (Typeface),” Wikipedia,, last modified December 30, 2014, accessed December 31, 2014.

“John Mandeville, Wikipedia,, last modified December 29, 2014, accessed December 31, 2014.

“Juggernaut,” Wikipedia,, last modified December 25, 2014, accessed December 31, 2014.

“Karl Drais,” Wikipedia,, last modified September 16, 2014, accessed December 31, 2014.

“Year Without a Summer,” Wikipedia,, last modified December 2, 2014, accessed December 31, 2014.

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