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The idea of assembling a composite printing surface from small, moveable pieces of type had been developed centuries earlier in the Far East, but unlike papermaking, there is no evidence of a slow diffusion of this technology to Europe. Printing appears to have evolved independently several times; all modern printing, however, derives from Gutenberg. In distinguishing his invention from earlier Chinese and Korean printing, most scholars cite the introduction of the font: the set of unique steel master letters, called punches, used to strike matrices, from which lead letters, or types, were cast in large numbers using an adjustable mould. This underlying multiplicative process, not of printed pages but of metal types, was at the core of typography in the West until the twentieth century.

Typography originated after the invention of printing from movable type in the mid 15th century. The three major type families in the history of Western printing are roman, italic, and black letter (Gothic). All had their origin in the scripts of the calligraphers whose work was ultimately replaced by printing. In the succeeding centuries typographers have created some 10,000 typefaces (a complete set of letter forms of a particular design). Depending on the style of their letters, typefaces are categorized as old style, transitional, and modern. Commonly used typefaces include Caslon, Baskerville, Bodoni, Garamond, and Times New Roman.