Skip to comments.The IBM Selectric Composer (Rather's theory thoroughly debunked)
Posted on 09/11/2004 11:58:25 PM PDT by JohnHuang2Edited on 09/12/2004 12:16:26 AM PDT by Admin Moderator. [history]
The IBM Selectric Composer
For a couple of days now we've been talking about whether the CBS memos could have been produced using the technology available in 1972 and 1973. We've talked about two typewriters mainly, both widely used at that time: the IBM Executive series and the IBM Selectric series.
Though the question has hardly been conclusively answered, the consensus of opinion among interested parties seems to be that neither an Executive nor a Selectric could have produced these memos.
My purpose here is not to debate the relative merits of either of those typewriters; that discussion is happening elsewhere. Rather, I want to take a moment to consider the dark horse candidate, the one piece of equipment that is widely believed to have been capable of producing a document similar to these memos, but that has been dismissed as being so improbable an alternative as to hardly bear talking about.
I'm referring to the IBM Selectric Composer. This machine resembles a sophisticated electric typewriter in most respects, but is in fact a full-fledged cold-type typesetting machine. (Cold type as opposed to hot type, machines like the Linotype that would cast entire lines of type in molten lead as the typesetter worked. Ah, those were the days.)
Whenever the topic has turned to the Selectric Composer, it has been dismissed out-of-hand as being far too expensive an item to find in an office on an Air National Guard base: The machine sold for anywhere from $3,600 to $4,400, and fonts were extra and not cheap. Furthermore, the Composer was widely agreed to be far too complicated and slow a machine to use for typing up memoranda, especially ones that were destined to go into a file and not even be distributed.
Update: Many commenters have pointed out and I'm trying to read 'em all, I promise! that I'm talking about $3,600 to $4,400 in unadjusted 1973 dollars here. If you use one of the widely available deflation or purchasing-power calculators, you end up with an equivalent in 2004 dollars of between about $16,000 and about $22,000. Bottom line: despite its fairly innocuous appearance, the Selectric Composer was no ordinary office typewriter. It was a pricey little number.
But the nagging question remained: Could an IBM Selectric Composer have been used to produce these documents?
I found my answer the same place everybody finds everything these days: Google. Typing "IBM Selectric Composer" into that search site took me to the aptly named ibmcomposer.org, which describes itself as "the only site on the Internet completely dedicated to the IBM 'Selectric' Composer line of typesetting machines." The site, which is run by Gerry Kaplan, includes information, scanned user manuals, and photographs of the only working IBM Selectric Composer I've been able to find. And, fortunately for me, it also includes an e-mail address.
When I first heard back from Gerry, I felt a little bad for having bothered him. He'd been fielding calls and letters all day, he told me, including an inquiry from CNN. But he was a trouper, willing enthusiastic even to help out.
I asked Gerry, in a fit of hubris, if he wouldn't mind trying to reproduce a sample from one of the CBS memos on his Selectric Composer. Just over an hour later, he emailed me back a sample, typed up on his Composer using the 11-point Press Roman type ball and scanned into his computer.
At first glance, the sample Gerry provided looks pretty darned close. The type is proportionally spaced, just like the type in the CBS memos. Gerry was also able to reproduce the now-infamous superscripted "th," though he had a disclaimer about that.Superscript didn't come out so good because when you change the escapement lever (from the larger spacing to smaller spacing, and visa versa), sometimes the ball actually slips forward by a small amount, so you can see that the superscript looks disjointed.
But all in all, I thought it looked pretty close. Was it possible that thirty years ago an Air Force Reserve lieutenant colonel typed up a handful of memos on a state-of-the-art typesetting machine?
I was getting ahead of myself. There's a big difference between looking pretty close and actually being pretty close. I knew I wouldn't be able to tell until I got the samples into Adobe Photoshop and superimposed them. I tinted Gerry's sample red for visibility and then overlaid it on top of the original. Here's the result.
The most obvious discrepancy was that the line-spacing what typographers call leading (rhymes with "shredding") was off. I e-mailed Gerry about this, and he replied: "Yes, if I had really tried, I could have matched the spacing (leading). The leading on the composer can be finely adjusted. Don't know if it is down to the single point level, but it probably is since you can set the leading according to the font, and the leading dial goes from something like 6pt up to 14pt."
Rather than asking Gerry to cough me up another sample, I simply split the lines of type apart in Photoshop and slid them down to align with the baselines of the corresponding lines of type in the original. Here's the adjusted version.
Much better and pretty darned close to the original. But not close enough. The letterforms in the IBM's Press Roman typeface are very close to the letterforms in the CBS memo. Not surprising, since they're both based on the original Times New Roman font commissioned by the Times of London in 1931. But as we've seen already, different versions of the same font always exhibit subtle differences, usually in letterspacing. This case is no different.
Consider the first line of type. The "14" at the end of the line is almost perfectly aligned in both samples. But the word "to" in "report to commander" is significantly offset. So's "AFB." And, of course, the second line is completely out of whack. The third line is quite close, except for the superscript, the one Gerry said looked disjointed because of a slip in the carrier while he was adjusting the escapement lever.
Hey, what about that superscript? How'd he make it? I asked him via e-mail, and he replied:To make the superscripted th, I first typed "111", then switched the font to the 8pt font, switched the escapement lever to the smaller escapement (horizontal movement), reverse indexed the paper 1/2 line up, typed the "th", indexed 1/2 line down, switched the escapement lever to the wider escapement, then changed the type ball back to the 11pt font. On other tries, I was able to produce the superscripted th much cleaner (where it looked proper), but on the one I sent you, the carrier slipped forward a little bit when I switched the escapement lever to and from the smaller spacing.
Just to be clear, when Gerry says he switched to the 8-point font, he's not talking about pushing a button. He had to remove the 11-point type ball from the machine and replace it with the 8-point type ball, which in a real office would involve digging in the back of a drawer to find the seldom-used thing. Creating that superscript wasn't quick or easy, and when he did it the carrier slipped and the superscript ended up offset. Unlike the perfectly formed and placed superscripts seen in the CBS memos.
So the superscript is slightly off, and the letterspacing is significantly off. What's left? Something I didn't even think to ask about: the centered type.Another point that is very suspicious is the centered heading. This is a snap to do with fixed spacing (like courier), but the text is centered using proportional spaced text, which means that the typist had to carefully measure the text prior to typing to calculate its exact center point. Typing a superscript, with all its steps, is simple compared to centering text proportionally without digital electronics.
This point was so important to Gerry that he went out of his way to mention it to me again later in the day: centering type is hard on the Selectric Composer. Two of the memos, May 4 and August 1, 1972, feature a three-line centered head. Each of those lines of type had to be centered by measuring it carefully, doing some math, then advancing the carrier to just the right point on the page. The margin for error would be pretty wide because type can be off by a few points in either direction and still look pretty well centered. It wouldn't be objectionable unless you went looking for it. So it wasn't necessary for Lt. Col. Killian or his typist to be millimeter-precise.
And yet he was.
Two letterheads typed three months apart can be superimposed on each other so perfectly that no difference at all can be seen. It's the same deal as before: the red in front was superimposed over the black behind it. You just can't see the black copy because the red copy is perfectly aligned with it. These letterheads weren't centered to within a couple of points of each other. They were centered exactly the same. Three months apart.
Can we draw any conclusions from this? Well, there's always room for doubt, no matter how slim, no matter how slight. But in my opinion yes. Based on the significant differences in letterspacing between the Composer font and the font used in the memos, the iffy nature of the superscript "th," and the unbelievable coincidence of the precisely centered headlines, I'm ready to say that the IBM Selectric Composer was not used to produce these memos.
Update: Gerry, who I swear is going to have his own blog before the end of this, had a suggestion.Something that I think would be a good test for your website may be to reproduce the centered heading using MS Word and Times New Roman. If you can produce centered text that matches identically to the letterhead, it is, in my opinion, a true hoax. The reason is, because even if they were able to center text with a typesetting machine such as the composer, a PC (and good word processor), will center the text even more precisely, not at the "point" level, but rather on the twip level (1/1440th of an inch or 1/20th of a point).
I live to please. Behold:
This is the composite image from above with the new stuff on top. The bottom layer is the first original memo headers in black. Above that is the second original memo headers in red ink. And on top of that in black is the header I created just now using Microsoft Word's default settings and clicking the "center" button. There's a little slippage because the original scans are not perfectly horizontal while the overlay I put on top is. But beyond that looks like a dead-on match to me.
What are the odds?
An update, in two parts: First, I would never suggest ballot-stuffing an online poll. Never. However, I'm not above publicizing one that deserves attention. Tonight's CNN/Lou Dobbs "quick poll" asks the question, "Should Dan Rather and CBS News reveal the sources of the Bush memos?" Y'all all know what I think, and now so does CNN. Go give 'em your opinion.
Part the second: if any of y'all felt like dropping a dollar or two in my tip jar, that'd be just fine. I don't want anybody to feel obligated, but just know that donations are both welcome and deeply appreciated.
I think we can safely assume that Mr. Kaplan is not a kerry supporter.
Oh, dear... Poor little Commie Dan is going to be REALLY all upsettie-poo with the Internet NOW...
First, his magnum opus gets abruptly torched by those evil right-wing wackos over on FR, who are clearly merely unlettered peasants unworthy of being allowed to share the same air he breathes.
NOW, another scurrilous clutch of Internet devils has facilitated the disparagement of his ONLY technically possible escape route??
("I just wish I could go back to 1979, before all of that Computer Stuff happened"... <<< sob... weep... >>>)
Upset with the inventor, Al Gore? dunno. heh
CNN poll, Should CBS reveal the source of the memos?
Yes 63% 8627 votes
No 37% 4963 votes
Total: 13590 votes
The pressure is on, my friend.
Kerry has alienated the entire Vintage Typewriter Collecting Community.
I don't think it's a safe assumption. If he runs a web-site devoted to what most of us would consider trivia, his concern for historical accuracy of his website subject could be much more important to him than political considerations.
Very, very interesting.
And CBS researched this for 6 weeks, huh?
Good work, if you can find it....
WHO WOULD ACTUALLY SAY "NO"...? Really....everybody ins nosey and wants more gossip and dirt....especially on nasty Dan....! This shows how bad these polls really are.......I would bet about 90% of people would want to know....
Hot steel on target.
I understand, Bernard, being something of a "trivia" person myself. I only meant that he's not, IMO, a kerry partisan. If he were, even if he cared deeply about "historical accuracy" of Selectric claims, he would just refuse to comment. But instead, he's enthusiastically helped debunk a story that potentially helps kerry and hurts Bush. IMO, a partisan wouldn't do that.
Maybe Captain Kirk and the Enterprise traveled back in time and provided the 111th FIS with a cheap reproduction of the IBM Composer.
C'MON!!! There's no way ON GOD'S GREEN EARTH Killian used a Composer.
As a civilian secretary working at an Air Force Base back in 1969, I have to say that centering was easy and not difficult to duplicate. I would start at the pre-set center of page, and back-space every other letter. It was easy to do, therefore this part is a non-issue as far as I'm concerned.
All the other questions, however, make it clear that this was a forgery. I recall many times, whether on a selectric, or an IBM Executive, trying to make corrections for typographical errors. It was almost impossible to replace an "i" with a "w", for example, because of the difference in space required. Neither of these typewriters had proportional spacing.
We're beatin' a dead horse. Time for the law to get involved.
I can assure you( I was in the Air guard in the '70's) that the Nat Grd would take a week to just get a paper typed, center or no center. We had no civies to actually do the work, so we had to band together to get it done. I once took 2 weeks in Georgia to place 4-100pr cables and terminate them on blocks with 4 guys. I could do it by myself in a couple of days if I put my back into it. Course the Air Force guys were nervous because we worked circles around them and they were afraid someone would notice.
This bothers me somewhat: the font of the memo is 12pt Times New Roman (or a very similar computer font), so why does he use 11pt Composer font to match? On the other hand, if 12pt Composer font is just too big, as compared to the memo font, while 11pt Composer font is too small to match the memo font (as apparent from the picture), then we have a clincher!
That same difference in space you refer to is what made centering difficult. If you were trying to center just the word "Bush", you would backspace two spaces, but it still wouldn't be centered. Because of the different size of the letters, "Bu" took up more space than "sh." So it would be slightly left of center. (Bush should never be left of center, but I digress.) Imagine how disparate it can get when what you're centering is even longer.
I can't see how it would be so easy with proportional spacing, since each character would have a unique width. The only way this could work might be if copies of one perfectly and laboriously centered letterhead were used, despite the poor quality of photocopying in 1972.
G'morning, Cincy. Ain't the Internet grand? Thank you, Al Gore! ;-)
Watch this video demonstration. If it's slow, just wait. It will play when it loads.
ping to a good thread.
In 1972 typists were trained to be typists and typesetters were trained to be typesetters. Offset printing had come just a few years before that and this opened up typesetting to typists. But when they used the fancy stuff that typists didn't, such as kerning and superscript, it was as preparation for cold type, as the rule.
Any typist using the IBM compositor they're referring to required special training.
IBM should have records of the number of such very expensive compositors sold in Texas at the time in question and even who received training, since they provided it. No typist could just sit down and use them. The training was included in the purchase price.
Maybe the army had these compositors but they would have had to have trained typesetters, not typists, and if so, why would they use them to produce simple letters instead of a typewriter since people spent that kind of money to prepare cold type.
Why do they use Palatino Linotype in Word to match? Prevoiusly Times New Roman was suspected as memo font. If they can match with both fonts, then it means that noise in the copy is too great for a precise font determination. The line-spacing and word-spacing match are petty damning anyway...
I wonder if a new handle for John Kerry should be "Selectric Boy"?
WE NEED TO SEE THOSE MEMOS AGAIN!
They are not in the style that we used when I came in to the USAF. They looked like the style and format we started using about 12 years ago (1992). Our signature blocks were left justified, now they are right of center...like the ones they just showed.
Within hours after the broadcast, FReeper "Buckhead" wrote to FReeper "Howlin":
Howlin, every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman.
In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts.
The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90's. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn't used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80's used monospaced fonts.
I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old.
This should be pursued aggressively.
Since then, news of the potential forgery glitch spread like wildfire from blog to blog and into the mainstream press - especially that of CBS competitors ABC and NBC.
As news of the allegedly false story, reported by CBS News correspondent Dan Rather, continued to gain momentum this morning, CBS issued a statement on its website: CBS News Stands By Story About Lapses In His Nat'l Guard Record, but reported in part, in conjunction with the Associated Press:.........****
I don't know. Last I read, it was "probably" either Palatino or Times New Roman. I saw one that had been typed up, but I don't remember which font was used, if they even said. The two fonts look identical to me.
I don't know about the "twip" level, but I think Rather would be capable of getting it to the twerp level.
Do the documents show evidence of 'kerning'?
Is the Selectric have kerning?
How many pitch widths, did the SComposer have?
How many pitch widths do the documents have?
12 point, 13 point, etc, Keep in mind these things have
been thru several copy cycles, that could change scale.
Do we know for sure, or not, that the current 'docs'
went thru a fax 'cycle'?
And, to repeat, keep in mind the curly apostrophe
ans SComposer font issue.
What font,is the other side suggesting for the SComposer?
Maybe in the Pentagon. I seriously dounbt any ANG units ever had any of them.
But was that paper 8 1/2" inches wide? As I recall, wasn't the paper stock a different size?
I would go much further than that, I suggest we organize a boycott of all companies that advertise on any program broadcast by CBS News. We could have a few volunteers to watch CBS Evenign News, 60 Minutes, etc. and make a log of all the advertisers that ran ads on particular days. It would be helpful for the log to be accurate, so whovever monitors the news should have his or her PC synchronized daily to an atomic clock. I think it would be impressive to email this list to affiliate stations and the companies advertsing with the times noted down to at least 15 seconds (1 second is better but difficult to do). We could also post this list to a Free Republic thread so anyone in the world can monitor which companies continue to advertise on CBS News programs. We can then credibly threaten to boycott those companies.
The military standard till the Reagan Administration adopted cilivilian standards was 8" x 10.5". Why isn't an edge from the smaller page visible on the copies made on standar letter sized paper?
I say boycott Viacom altogether until Dan Rather and company are fired.
After they are terminated, continue with legal prosecution against the forgers.
The last point is convincing (centered with MS Word)
Composer had a limted set of standart widths (like 7), but how many are in the docs requires serious effort to measure. This can possibly settle the issue without a better copy though. As to the kerning, apparently no kerning is used in the docs. Differences between 11pt and 12pt fonts can be in principle detected regardless of the scale, but the copy is so bad that it might be beyond the margin of error
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.