Using CSS Sprites

Tom Van Vleck

Several pages on multicians.org display picture galleries as a set of thumbnails. Clicking on any thumbnail picture opens a new page, or opens a bigger picture by calling a JavaScript function. Implementing these gallery pages in a simple way makes them noticeably slow to load if there are many thumbnails. Constructing the pages to show the galleries with more complex HTML and CSS makes the pages load faster. (Another benefit is that Google penalizes pages that load slowly, ranking them lower in search results.)


Thumbnail Galleries

The site multicians.org uses thumbnails that occupy 75x75 CSS pixels on gallery pages. As described in High DPI Pictures, we use 150x150 image-pixel images to ensure that the thumbnails will look sharp on high-dpi screens such as smartphones and Retina displays. This sizing approach is also used for larger images such as the home page sliders, if we have the original pictures at high enough resolution.

A user visiting a naively constructed page, say with 400 thumbnail images, would see the page load slowly, because the user's browser has to (1) request the page and its stylesheet (2) and JavaScript (3), (2) wait for the page's HTML, CSS, and JavaScript to come back, (3) parse the HTML to find 400 IMG tags, and then (4-403) send each of 400 requests to the web server for the images, and wait for each in order to find out the size, before the browser can (404) position the page's elements and display them.

HTML Implementation

One way to speed up page display is to specify WIDTH and HEIGHT (in CSS pixels) on each IMG tag, so that browsers don't need to wait to read an image in and get its size to determine its effect on the layout of other elements. Doing this enables a browser to lay out the page and text elements quickly and display the non-image elements, and then send 400 requests to fetch the graphics, and insert the contents of each image as they arrive from the web server. (On a slow connection, this result is very noticeable: instead of a long pause before anything appears, the page's heading, text, and footers appear quickly, and then the graphics appear a few at a time.)

A second method to speed up page display is to display a small transparent GIF image for each thumbnail, and specify the actual thumbnail image content as a CSS BACKGROUND property on each image. Browsers can then display non-image content right away, and not have to move it around later.

Using HTML Sprites

A round-trip request from the user's browser to the site web server takes much more time than creating the laid-out page image on the local computer. To make gallery pages load even faster, one can combine multiple images into one or more combined graphic files and display each thumbnail image as a CSS sprite; that is, the HTML display for each image shows a transparent 1x1 GIF stretched to 150x150, with a separate CSS class for each image that selects a background 150x150 image slice, or sprite from the right place in the combined file.

Constructing web pages using sprites makes page loading and transition faster. For a gallery page with 400 thumbnails, the browser (1) loads the HTML and CSS definitions for each sprite, (2) loads the 1x1 transparent GIF (which may be cached by the browser), and (3) fetches the packed file: this requires three round-trip data requests to the server instead of 403. The browser can then lay out the page image and display it.

The benefit depends on web visitors' perceptions, the speed of their connections, and the speed of their PC. For a page with less than 20 images, it's probably not noticeable... unless visitors are loading a site over a satellite connection or are very impatient.

For a home page whose responsiveness is critical, or a page with lots of images, it is worth doing some experiments. To see how long it takes a page to load, you can use Google Chrome: choose View => Inspect Elements => Network and reload the page to see what elements are loaded and what takes the longest. Or you can select the Inspector's Lighthouse tab and audit the page; Performance should be near 100.

For an example of a page where sprites are is used, see multics-images.html. Instead of loading 650 small thumbnail JPG files, it fetches five large combined JPGs, which is much faster.

Maintaining Web Pages with Galleries

Creating an HTML web page containing galleries like this would be tedious and error prone. Making any change to such a page would be difficult to do correctly. I always say, "If it's worth doing at all, it's worth writing a tool to do it." Automation with expandfile macros makes it simple. expandfile compiles source in HTMX to HTML with all the correct relationships.

To set up a gallery page to use sprites, the compilation of HTMX to HTML takes these steps:

  1. Find the list of thumbnails for each gallery section
  2. Concatenate the thumbnails info a packed graphic file
  3. Generate a CSS class for each thumbnail that slices out the thumbnail image from the packed file
  4. Create an IMG tag for each thumbnail that references a 1x1 transparent GIF file clearpix.gif and specifies the generated CSS class

This requires a list of the thumbnails for each gallery and a way of performing the steps for each thumbnail. This list could be built into the page source, or kept in an SQL or CSV file. I chose SQL.

The multicians.org build process is driven by SQL tables listing images. Pages with galleries generate the packed graphics when the HTML page is made from .htmx and .sql source, and use macros to create IMG tags that reference the packed file. See Using Unix tools with expandfile for more info.


Generating Thumbnails

To create a thumbnail for an image, I use a shell script called gth2x to generate a 150x150 thumbnail image from JPG, PNG, and GIF files using the free tool ImageMagick (available for Mac, Windows, and Linux).

# square thumb 150x150
# requires ImageMagick tool convert
# THVV 2011-04-07
# THVV 2016-06-07 add sharpen
# THVV 2017-03-29 make 2x version

#  Permission is hereby granted, free of charge, to any person obtaining
#  a copy of this software and associated documentation files (the
#  "Software"), to deal in the Software without restriction, including
#  without limitation the rights to use, copy, modify, merge, publish,
#  distribute, sublicense, and/or sell copies of the Software, and to
#  permit persons to whom the Software is furnished to do so, subject to
#  the following conditions:

#  The above copyright notice and this permission notice shall be included
#  in all copies or substantial portions of the Software.


if test -z "$f"
  echo "usage: gth2x filename [center|north|northeast|...]"
  exit 1
if test -z "$grav"
echo convert -thumbnail x300 -resize '300x<' -resize 50% -gravity $grav -crop 150x150+0+0 -sharpen 0x1.0 +repage $f thumb2-$f
convert -thumbnail x300 -resize '300x<' -resize 50% -gravity $grav -crop 150x150+0+0 -sharpen 0x1.0 +repage $f thumb2-$f

Given the file name foo.jpg, this script runs ImageMagick's convert program to create a thumbnail thumb2-foo.jpg, which I then move into the thumbnails150 directory, and name it the same as the full size graphic.

The script accepts an optional "gravity" argument to specify which part of a non-square input will be kept: "center" is the default, and "northwest" and other compass points can also be given. Usually I generate the default, and then if a thumbnail is really ugly, I try the script with other arguments. In extreme cases I generate a better thumbnail using an image editor to isolate the key details of a photo.

Generating Many Thumbnails

multicians.org uses a subdirectory called mulimg with full size photos, and another subdirectory called thumbnails150 containing the corresponding thumbnails, with the full size and thumbnail files named the same.

The Makefiles of other sites I maintain use the a Perl program called genthumbs to scan an image directory and a thumbnails directory and create any missing thumbnails, by invoking convert in a similar way to gth2x.

Concatenating Thumbnails

The sprite solution requires a combined JPG file of concatenated 150x150 images.

The ImageMagick tool convert has a way to concatenate thumbnails. The simplest way is to make one thumbnail with a height of 150 and a width of (150 * N) for N thumbnails. Addressing the individual images from CSS is then easy. Execute

  convert x.jpg y.jpg z.jpg ... -append thumbspack.jpg

to create a combined image thumbspack.jpg from a list of individual sprite images.

The maximum dimension of a JPEG file is 65536 pixels in either dimension .. so this method will only work for up to 436 thumbnails if the sprite file is a linear concatenation of 150x150 sub-images. To go beyond this limit, I could make a 2-dimensional packed file with more complex addressing, or create multiple packed files. Either of these methods requires corresponding changes to the CSS sprite definitions. (For example, multics-images.html divides its 650 images into 5 files, divided by topic; when the "People" category came near to exceeding this limit, I divided the section into 1960-2009 and 2010-onward packed files, by changing the template and the database that lists images.)


IMG tags

An IMG tag that displays a particular sprite image looks like

  <img src="mulimg/clearpix.gif" width="75" height="75" alt="" class="thumbspacksprite003">

The WIDTH and HEIGHT in the IMG tag are measured in CSS layout pixels (CSS standardizes this at 96 DPI). clearpix.gif is a 1x1 pixel transparent GIF file: it will be stretched to whatever dimensions are in WIDTH and HEIGHT. Since it is transparent, the background will show through it. The CLASS attribute specifies a particular class for the image to be shown, and is different for each image. The expandfile macros generate the CSS class definitions at the same time that they generate the combined thumbnail sprite graphics file.

Generating CSS sprite image definitions

The CSS class definitions go inside a STYLE tag in the HEAD section of the web page. There will be one class definition for each image in the concatenated file. The CSS class definition for a particular sprite image, say the third one, looks like

  .thumbspacksprite003 {
    width: 75px;
    height: 75px;
    background: url(mulimg/thumbspack.jpg) no-repeat 0px -150px;
    background-size: 75px;

The first element is the class name, which matches the CLASS attribute in an IMG tag. The WIDTH and HEIGHT attributes in the CSS definition are measured in CSS pixels. The relative URL of the packed JPG file is in the URL() value of the BACKGROUND attribute, which then positions the background by specifying the vertical and horizontal offset of the background (basically the background is shifted down and left, and then a 75x75 window for the sprite is applied.. this is why the offset is negative). The BACKGROUND-SIZE attribute is the width of the image in CSS pixels; I think it can be omitted since it is the same as WIDTH.

In this example, the image being displayed has twice as many image pixels as the CSS layout space it is shown in, in order to show sharp images on high DPI screens, as mentioned above.

(I used to arrange thumbnails with a TABLE element, but tables don't work well on small screens. It is simpler to just write a sequence of IMG tags with the INLINE attribute, and let the browser decide at layout time how many to put on a row, depending on the screen width.)

HTMX code

Pages that display thumbnail galleries using sprites are generated by expandfile from .htmx source. Small SQL databases list the images to be shown and what to do when the thumbnail is clicked; the *sqlloop builtin iterates over such databases selecting images to display and expanding templates. The HTMX source file uses the *sqlloop builtin function to generate a temporary shell script that re-creates the packed thumbnail sprite images, noting the offset of the thumbnail. The loop also generates CSS definitions for each thumbnail, using the offset. The HTMX source inserts the generated CSS definitions in the HEAD of the page, and then executes the shell script with the *shell builtin function. The source file later uses a second *sqlloop to generate a list of IMG tags for displaying thumbnails that pop up a full size image. With this arrangement, the HTMX file need not be changed when a new image is added.

If I change any element on a page with galleries, the macros regenerate all the CSS classes, all the IMG tags, and all combined sprite image files. This takes a few seconds and ensures that all the HTML and graphics elements match. When I test the page in a browser, I have to force reload the page's graphics.

(Just to be clear, HTMX macro expansion, SQL queries, shell scripts.. all this tricky stuff is done on my development computer, before deploying compiled HTML pages to the web server. The web server does nothing but find and send HTML pages on request, without any database accesses or content creation. When the HTML page reaches whe user's browser, the browser lays out the page using CSS rules and displays it. On some galleries, a click on a small image will execute JavaScript to display a popup. This design provides high speed page access while supporting expressive and concise page definition.)

Example: Home Page Slider

The web page multicians.html displays a sliding panel of fifteen 600x488 pixel images (shown in a 300x244 CSS space), using JavaScript code based on the jQuery plugin "EasySlider." The purpose of this section is to attract visitors to site features past the home page.

I decided to use sprites for this display to make the site's home page load as fast as possible, to make sure Google didn't penalize the page. (Chrome Lighthouse says the page is fully up in 0.5 seconds. After that, changing images does not contact the web server again.) Using sprites for the slider images was an easy upgrade: I changed the IMG tag to show a 1x1 transparent GIF for each sprite and added a BACKGROUND CSS class, and generated the packed JPG file and the CSS class definitions whenever the home page or the slider definitions change.

The HTML IMG tags, CSS definitions, and packed image are generated by about 40 lines of expandfile code when the page is compiled by iterating over a little SQL database table, homeslider, with 15 rows that specify the picture file name, a text caption to be overlaid over the image with its color and placement, a link target (another HTML page on the site), and a TITLE attribute. The overlay text can reference expandfile variables with values computed at page compilation time, so that an image can be captioned, e.g. "5015 Documents". Macros generate the HTML and corresponding CSS that are referenced by the JavaScript slider function. It's elegant: the JavaScript slider doesn't know about the sprites, and the sprites don't need to know about the slider code.

Here is the definition of the SQL table:

-- homeslider table
-- Copyright (c) 2014-2022, Tom Van Vleck
-- THVV 05/07/17 change images to 600x488 for retina.
-- THVV 06/22/17 replace timeline images with hiDPI GIFs
-- THVV 08/10/21 better captions
-- ----------------
-- see multics.htmx for how this table is used.
-- all images are 600x488px, to be shown in a 300x244 CSS pixel space
CREATE TABLE homeslider(
 ordinal FLOAT,            -- order of items if more than one selected
 liclass VARCHAR(64),      -- class for the LI
 cssclass VARCHAR(64),     -- class for the picture -- bkhi=black,high rdmd=red,medium whmd=white,medium wholo=white,low bllo=black,low rdlo=red,low
 target VARCHAR(255),      -- link target
 filename VARCHAR(255),    -- picture file name
 oltitle VARCHAR(255),     -- overlay title, may contain HTMX var
 description VARCHAR(255), -- TITLE attribute
 PRIMARY KEY(filename)

INSERT INTO homeslider (ordinal, liclass, cssclass, target, filename, oltitle, description) VALUES
(0.0,'','sc_whmd','multics-stories.html','slider-h6180-doors-open-2x.jpg','%[nstories]% Multics Stories','MIT 6180 Multics computer Dec 1973 [THVV]'),
(0.5,' class="starthidden"','sc_bkhi','corby.html','slider-corby-dorfman-2x.jpg','Corby (1926-2019)','Corby, 2016 [Jason Dorfman]'),
(1.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bkhi','history.html','slider-m-timeline-2x.gif','History 1963-%[year]%','timeline'),
(2.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_whmd','multicians.html','slider-cuties-2x.jpg','%[nmulticians]% Multicians','Multics Cuties, Phoenix, 1979 [THVV]'),
(3.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bkhi','biblio.html','slider-mspm-2x.jpg','%[ndoc]% Documents','Multics System Programmers Manual [Dave Walden]'),
(4.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_rdmd','myths.html','slider-iom-panel-2x.jpg','%[nmyths]% Myths About Multics','I/O Multiplexer control panel [THVV]'),
(5.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bllo','papers.html','slider-645-board-2x.jpg','%[npapers]% Conference Papers','board from a GE-645 [THVV]'),
(6.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bkhi','devproc.html','slider-mcrb-2x.jpg','Development Process','Multics Change Review Board, Mar 1974 [THVV]'),
(7.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bllo','about-multics.html','slider-ge645-2x.jpg','About the Web site','Artist conception of GE-645 Multics system [from Corby]'),
(8.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_rdlo','articles.html','slider-6880-system-2x.jpg','%[narticles]% Articles','68/80 Multics system [Honeywell]'),
(9.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bkhi','picnics.html','slider-flutes-2x.jpg','Multics Picnics','Multics Picnic, Groton MA, 1977 [THVV]'),
(10.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bklo','phase-one.html','slider-martin-widrig-645-2x.jpg','Phase One','Don Widrig at MIT GE-645, 1967 [THVV]'),
(11.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bkhi','memorabilia.html','slider-multics-frisbee-2x.jpg','Memorabilia','Multics flying disc [THVV]'),
(12.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bkhi','b2.html','slider-you-would-b2-2x.jpg','Security','Button from HLSUA meeting [THVV]'),
(13.0,' class="starthidden"','sc_bklo','site-timeline.html','slider-site-timeline-2x.gif','Site Timeline','History of Multics sites');

-- mulimg/slider-ge645-paris-2x.jpg