Olympiad: IBM Prototype Fonts Unearthed

My Ultimate Oldschool PC Font Pack got some pretty cool responses, and one of them contained something quite unexpected: a set of files transferred from twenty-five 5.25" floppies, containing internal snapshots of font development done at IBM around 1984.

These prototype fonts were designed specifically for a project codenamed Olympiad.  Familiar?  Probably not, but it came to light a couple years later as the IBM 6150 AKA the RT PC, a RISC workstation and grandaddy of the PowerPC architecture.  The type design work was evidently carried out in IBM's Austin, TX campus; the date stamps on the files range from Dec '83 to mid '85 - according to the contributor, this set of fonts took the team a year to deliver.

Olympiad IBM prototype fonts sample image

Sample image off the work-in-progress files

Inside the disks is a big bunch of bitmap character data, plus sample images and tools for internal use (some compiled, some written in IBM PC BASIC).  The person who sent this to me had already extracted some of the bitmap data: it's mostly straight 1bpp framebuffer dumps, except for a few '.IDS' files that proved slightly tricky (with characters in sequence like a typical font ROM, except that the scanlines aren't byte-aligned, appallingly enough).  Once I had everything converted, I promptly set about creating .FON and .TTF versions, as you do.

Clearly a lot of work went into these typefaces, and the result is stylized yet very legible.  This kind of high-quality bitmap typography is not something that most people associate with mid-'80s IBM, as opposed to the early Macs for instance.  Apparently, the team's research found that serifs make for better readability; whether true or not, these fonts are some of the better ones from the heyday of bitmap typefaces.

Olympiad Austin character set

Olympiad Austin character set

In all, there are six complete fonts with a selection of 571 characters each (mapped to unicode in the .TTF versions).  Since every character from the good old DOS Codepage 437 makes an appearance, I've included DOS-mapped versions as well, because why not.

  • Olympiad Austin (9x20 px), "intended as the primary font on release one" (it says here)
  • Olympiad Austin Bold (9x20 px)
  • Olympiad Austin Italic (9x20 px)
  • Olympiad EGA (8x14 px)
  • Olympiad Micro (4x8 px)
  • Olympiad Title (18x40 px)

The fonts that ended up in the RT PC's AIX operating system are a good match for these - although that list contains a couple more fonts ('Ergonomic' and 12x30) not included here.  The selection of characters is also largely the same, except for those last five math/technical symbols probably added later; the versions on these disks didn't have those, but we'll live without them.

Besides the MDA and EGA display options, the 615x family supported several RT-specific adapters for higher-resolution monochrome and color output.  These did not have 'text modes' as such: "because the display adapters that drive the monitors are all-points-addressable, character boxes of any size may be used" - hence the fancy non-standard sizes.  Despite this, the fonts are still monospaced (although the disks contain a few images that experimented with variable pitch).  The 8x14 font is the only one that could conceivably work on EGA, and since it's designated 'E' on the disks, that was probably its purpose.

Samples for all Olympiad fonts

The disk archives themselves are intriguing to skim through - there's that neat time-capsule / behind-the-scenes factor, and you can follow the development process by browsing through the images in chronological order.

A few curious things that caught my eye:

  • The presence of "HBASIC.EXE" tells us that the development process involved Hercules graphics cards - meaning that this group was internally using hardware that competed with IBM's own.
  • There are other fonts besides the above six, but the character sets are partial, so they were probably abandoned along the way.
  • Some of the familiar PC charsets make an appearance, like the MDA and BIOS ones (probably for comparison's sake, or for working off of).
  • One of those other charsets is a 8x8 one that looks very similar (if not identical) to IBM's PC Convertible (5140) font.  The Convertible hit the shelves not too long after the RT, and its built-in font was much like the Austin one with its serifs and stylized strokes, although the resolution was obviously lower.  Since there's more than one revision of this 8x8 font here, it seems likely that the same team produced the Convertible font as an offshoot of the Olympiad typeface work.

IBM PC Convertible prototype font?
IBM PC Convertible prototype font?)


In addition to the fonts, I have the contributor's permission to share the disk archives as well, so I'm posting them as received - complete with the .BMPs and conversion programs added on in the late '90s.  Most files have date stamps though, so it's easy to tell what's what.  For completeness sake, I've also included my own .PNG conversions of every image in the disk set.


Anonymous says:

Just cool ! it should exist a domain,
forum and an Downloadportal with these old Fonts

maybe something firstelitefonts.xxx/truefirstfonts.xxx/geekfonts.xxx
or something where be listet the whole old fonts from the old engines
where be specially designed for have a well type output :)

best regards

Lando says:

If you want the final shipping RT font files for comparison, I have them on my RT.

Lando says:

Also, on a real RT, they display inverted- white background with black text.

VileR says:

Lando: yes, those would be interesting to have a look at! IIRC the format was documented in the manual, so it may be possible to convert those as well.

Lando says:

It is indeed documented in that manual. Plus, AIX also included the "source" for the fonts (it's really just ROMP assembly, with lots of data literals- but the header fields are all commented). I'm currently waiting for my RT to pack it up (bzip2 is incredibly slow on that thing...) and then I'll upload it.

Lando says:

https://db.tt/hxHdUaE6 Here you go. The binary font images (these are TOC-format executable files, by the way- it's a special executable format used by the RT's "Virtual Resource Manager" hypervisor, which is the code component that provides the virtual terminal subsystem that accepts these fonts, though X11 on the RT also uses them) are located in etc/vtm, along with some graphics card microcode files. The assembler source for each font can be found in usr/lib/vtm.

VileR says:

Okay, that format verges on sadism, but I've made some sense of it. :) Could be an interesting project to convert these into straight-up bitmaps and (in turn) usable TrueType/bitmap fonts. Will post an update if I have any findings. Thanks!

Lando says:

There are two formats: one for non-5081 displays, and one for 5081 displays. Go with the non-5081 format, because the 5081 was really a graphics terminal for mainframes that could be bolted onto an RT. (the ones that include "MP1" in the file name are 5081 format)

I'm also not surprised that the regular CP437 character set is also there, because the optional "AT coprocessor" (aka 286 on an ISA card) for the RT would have definitely used it. Talk about a weird thing: it could use ROMP RAM, but it was faster to use RAM on other ISA cards with it. Additionally, the RT-side software for it was actually implemented as a separate virtual machine for the VRM hypervisor, believe it or not. The RT is definitely unique in being the first workstation-class machine with virtualization, even though IBM never really mentioned how you could run multiple VMs.

Lando says:

Oh, and the 5081 format is the one that borders on sadism. Non-5081 is straight-up bitmap. Consult the source files in usr/lib/vtm for ROMP assembly source files for the non-5081 fonts, complete with comments.

BigAlUK says:

On your oldschool-pc-fonts pages you mention that the registry entries for console fonts can be entered with '00...' names. I have recently discovered that you can avoid having names like '00000000000000000000000000000' by actually using textual names (for instance the actual fonts name, or a variant thereof). This allows a moderately sensible way of including the whole oldschool library into the Windows 7 console. I've included a link to the REGISTRY EXPORT (.REG) file of HKLM...ConsoleTrueTypeFont as an example here:


(Let me know if the link doesn't work). I've made the link to a .TXT extension, so that the content can be seen before download as .TXT. Just edit as desired and remove the .TXT extension so you can merge the resulatnt .REG file if that's your desire.


MrBadAxe says:

What's the source of that quote? "An Engineer is a Linguist..." Wikiquote comes up blank.

VileR says:

@MrBadAxe: Sorry, no idea. Unfortunately that's what we're dealing with these days: when something can't be found online it's doomed to obscurity...

SleeepyKat says:

Thanks a lot. This is glorious! Olympiad Title is my new favorite terminal font.

FodOldHHack says:

Where was a running IBM RT-PC to get the fonts from? I had a 6150, and two 6151s, running AOS but never got a GUI running.

VileR says:

The final versions of those fonts wouldn't really be "RT PC fonts", more like "AIX fonts" since they're provided with the OS, and I believe the Virtual Resource Manager takes care of screen I/O including the text display. Although they were clearly designed with the RT's display hardware in mind (AIX v1.x ran only on the RT, AFAIK).

Zaki says:

@VileR: AIX version 1.x was AIX PS/2 for PCs and AIX/370 for S/370 mainframes. AIX version 2 ran on the RT/PC.
AIX PS/2 is available for download from various sites and it will run under VirtualBox.

Write a response:

* Required.
Your email address will not be published.