Prior to 1737, little standardisation existed in the sizes of printing types and typefounders cast types to their own sizes and dimensions. In this year, the Parisian typefounder Pierre Simon Fournier introduced a new system that he derived from dividing two inches of the pre-metric French foot into one hundred and forty-four equal parts. Fournier gave the resulting unit a name – ‘points’ – and they measured 0.137 of the English inch, which is close to the present point system.
Around 1780, after the death of Fournier, François Ambrose Didot further developed the ‘point’ system so that is became based on the legal French foot measure. The Didot point measured 0.148 of the English inch and became the dominant system of type measurement throughout continental Europe, its former colonies, and Latin America.
Although Didot’s system became widely used, it never gained favour in Britain and North America and it wasn’t until the late 19th Century that standardisation, in the form of the American point system, became adopted by British typefounders.
Although many of the old English names for type bodies have disappeared, Pica and Nonpareil are still commonly used by letterpress typesetters and printers. However, they are now used in conjunction with the American point system, rather than to describe the varying and non-standard type body sizes in place before the long process of standardisation started by Fournier in the 18th Century.