An interactive online artwork created for Art21 and PBS by Golan Levin with Jonathan Feinberg and Cassidy Curtis, the Alphabet Synthesis Machine is a co-production of Art21, Inc., New York City, and The Arts Company, Cambridge, MA. Executive Producer: Susan Dowling. Contact: Golan Levin <golan at flong dot com>. Version 1.1 (January 2002).
Précis: The Alphabet Synthesis Machine is an interactive online artwork which allows one to create and evolve the possible writing systems of one's own imaginary civilizations. The abstract alphabets produced by the Machine can be downloaded as PC-format TrueType fonts, and are entered into a comprehensive archive of user creations. The products of the Machine probe the liminal territories between familiarity and chaos, language and gesture.

Background
I
very clearly remember the first time that I encountered an unfamiliar alphabet: it was an event which occurred in my family's synagogue when I was very small, perhaps four years old. I had just learned to read English, but it had not yet been explained to me that there could exist other writing systems apart from the one I knew. One evening during a ceremony, I asked my father what the funny black squiggles were in the prayer books we were holding. "Sh!" he said: "that is how we talk with God." Astonished, I became transfixed by the black squiggles, which no longer seemed quite so funny; but although I stared at them until I was dizzy, I could find no way to render them intelligible. Only later did I learn that these marks were Hebrew. Since that time, I have been preoccupied by the possibility that abstract forms can connect us to a reality beyond language, and bridge the thin line between nonsense and the divine.

Somewhere between the visual noise of television static, and the visual order of the text you are now reading, lies a fascinating realm of visual semi-sense. Precisely where do the borders of that realm lie? By studying that realm of semi-sense, we surmise that we may come to a deeper understanding of precisely how sense-making occurs at all. To do this, we have written software which attempts to generate artifacts that seem to make sense, but in fact, don't.

The particular goal of this work is to bring about the specific feeling of semi-sense one experiences when one recognizes—but cannot read—the unfamiliar writing of another culture. Our Alphabet Synthesis Machine is an interactive system in which a user guides an evolutionary genetic algorithm in order to create and explore coherent sets of abstract glyphs. Hopefully, these mark-like forms resemble the plausible alphabets of human civilizations with which we simply happen to be unacquainted.

Implementation
The Alphabet Synthesis Machine is comprised of two software systems: an interactive client-side applet, which allows users to create and evolve their abstract letterforms, and a server-side archiving system which stores the user creations as downloadable TrueType fonts.

At the heart of the interactive applet is a genetic algorithm. This algorithm attempts to evolve a population of candidate glyphs according to a set of fitness metrics established by the user. Some of these fitness metrics are obtained from an initial 'seed glyph' provided by the user, while others are controlled by the user in real-time, through a set of parametric sliders and other interface controls. The glyphs are evolved both as individuals (i.e. each in relation to an ideal metric, in order to enhance their individual 'letterness'), and also as a species (i.e. each in contradistinction to each other, in order to enhance the variety of the alphabet as a whole).

The glyphs themselves are the virtual trajectories of synthetic hand movements, produced by a 3-dimensional physics simulation of a hand-pen-paper system. This model incorporates such forces as the response of hand muscles to neural firing rates; the inertia and intrisic viscosity of the arm; gravity; and the friction of the stylus against the virtual writing surface.

When the user is finished evolving their abstract alphabet, its glyphs are converted into quadratic Bezier outlines and then transmitted to the server, which stores them as a PC-formatted TrueType font. This font can be downloaded at the time of its creation, or at any future time from an online archives of user creations. Visitors have created more than 700 alphabets since the project's launch (1 October 2001).

The Alphabet Synthesis Machine is currently a work-in-progress. While this version (1.0) deals strictly with single-stroked cursive alphabetic forms, future versions of the ASM will explore the possibilities of cut- and printed-letterform simulation.

Alphabet Examples

ALPHABETS PRODUCED BY VISITORS.
An informal "best-of" selection of example alphabets can be seen in these thumbnails.

PDF SCAN SHEETS OF EXAMPLE ALPHABETS.

A variety of user-created alphabets have been set in blocks of text.

THE ARCHIVE.
The complete and unfiltered archive of user creations.
Quotes
The authors found encouragement in some of the following writings during the development of the Alphabet Synthesis Machine.

"By the meaningless sign linked to the meaningless sound we have built the shape and meaning of Western man."
—Marshall McLuhan, The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962.

"A page of type is one of the most abstract pieces of communication I can imagine. Symbols of the most ancient origin can be put together in ways that stimulate they eye, through pattern, and the mind, through thought." —Warren Chappell, A Short History of the Printed Word, 1970.

"That language may be in itself an arbitrary absurdity, that it may communicate nothing except in its stuttering essence, that it may depend almost entirely not on its enunciators but on its interpreters for its existence, and that the role of readers is to render visible that which writing suggests in its hints and shadows." Manguel, History of Reading, 1995.

"By this art you may contemplate the variation of the 23 letters." —Jorge Luis Borges, The Library of Babel, in Labyrinths, 1960.
Bibliography
Anderson, Donald. Calligraphy: The Art of Written Forms. Dover, 1969.

Catich, Edward. The Origin of the Serif. Catich Gallery, Iowa, 1991.

Chappell, Warren. A Short History of the Printed Word. Dorset Press, New York, 1970.

Coulmas, Florian. The Writing Systems of the World. Blackwell Press, Oxford, 1991.

Diringer, David. The Alphabet. Hutchinson Press, 1968.

Drucker, Johanna. The Alphabetic Labyrinth: The Letters in History and Imagination. Thames and Hudson, London, 1995.

Firmage, Richard. The Alphabet Abecedarium: Some Notes on Letters. Godine Press, 1993.

Gaur, Albertine. A History of Writing. The British Library Press, London, 1992.

Gurtler, Andre. Experiments with Letterform and Calligraphy. Verlag Niggli, Lichtenstein, 1997.

Harris, David. The Art of Calligraphy. DK Publishing, New York, 1995.

Hersch, Roger. Visual and Technical Aspects of Type. Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Hofstadter, Douglas. Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought. Basic Books, 1995.

Hofstadter, Douglas. Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern. Basic Books, 1985.

Kim, Scott. Inversions. McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Nakanishi, Akira. Writing Systems of the World. Tuttle, Tokyo, 1992.

Rasula, Jed and Steve McCaffrey. Imagining Language: An Anthology. MIT Press, 1998.

Sampson, Geoffrey. Writing Systems. Stanford University Press, 1985.

Copyright
We're very interested in the proliferation of the Machine's abstract alphabets! We encourage you to let us know how and where you have found them useful. {Contact email: golan at flong dot com} Basically, the fonts created by the visitors to this site are in the public domain, and can be used however and wherever you like. The remainder of this notice is merely intended to protect our public font collection from an unscrupulous reseller, to wit:

The digital typefaces produced by the Alphabet Synthesis Machine (ASM) are protected by Copyright as a collective work and/or compilation. You may copy individual typefaces for your own personal use, and use these typefaces in published designs, but may not commercially exploit or reproduce any significant portion of the ASM typeface collection in any form without the express permission of the Authors. The Authors of the ASM reserve the right to reproduce, modify or delete any typeface contained herein. The ASM software and all downloadable typefaces are distributed on an "as is" basis without warranties of any kind, either express or implied, including, without limitation, implied warranties of fitness for a particular purpose.

Frequently Asked Questions
How can I use my alphabet typeface in my favorite applications?
The fonts produced by the Alphabet Synthesis Machine (ASM) are TrueType fonts for the Windows PC. If you are a Windows user, look for a directory called "Fonts" in C:\WINNT or C:\WINDOWS, and place the font there. If you are a Mac user, you must first convert the font to the Mac TrueType format (see the instructions below); you can then place the font in the "Fonts" folder in your System Folder.

How do I convert my alphabet typeface for a Mac?
Mac users who've upgraded to OSX can use the TTF font format exactly as downloaded. Just drop the font file into the "Library/Fonts" folder. Mac users with older operating systems, however, can use a variety of tools to convert the font into the Mac TrueType format. We recommend Chris Reed's TTConverter utility, which is shareware ($10), or Crossfont by Acute Systems ($45).

What other projects deal with the synthesis of imaginary alphabets?
Whereas the ASM uses a physical simulation in tandem with an evolution algorithm to produce "handwritten" forms, Matt Chisholm's "Alphabet Soup" project uses a shape grammar based on the structure of the Roman/Cyrillic/Greek/IPA alphabets in order to synthesize novel "punch-cut" glyphs.
Site keywords
alphabet synthesis, alphabet synthesizer, archaeography, graphemics, synthetic alphabets, nonsense alphabets, unfamiliar alphabets, alien alphabets, fantasy alphabets, imaginary writing systems, invented languages, handwriting synthesis, interactive art, Java applet, online art, glyphs, fonts. Last updated 26 March 2002.