by Richard Polt
Author of The Typewriter Revolution
For a few weeks in September 2004, it looked like the outcome of the U.S. presidential election might depend on — of all things — typewriters.
The question was whether the documents used by "60 Minutes" to support the allegation that George W. Bush did not properly perform his National Guard duties, documents supposedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian in 1972 and 1973, could really have been typed at that time. Eventually, "60 Minutes" was unable to verify the authenticity of the documents, and famous newsman Dan Rather resigned. The story is dramatized in the 2015 film "Truth."
Here is my nonpartisan, nonpolitical explanation of why the documents are, beyond all reasonable doubt, fakes.
First, let's look at the four documents:
The images above are JPEG versions of these documents originally supplied by CBS in PDF format:
Dated 04 May 1972
Dated 19 May 1972
Dated 01 August 1972
Dated 18 August 1973
Now for some analysis:
The documents were obviously not produced by a commonly used typewriter of the period, and obviously could easily have been produced by a word processing program on a type of personal computer that did not yet exist in 1972-73. Here are the features that make me (and so many others) say this:
- Differential spacing (an "i" is narrower than a "w," for instance). This was a feature found on some expensive typewriters (the most successful was the IBM Executive; others include the Varityper and the IBM Selectric Composer). But most typewriters (I estimate over 99%) were monospaced machines, which assign every character the same width. Most computer fonts, such as the Times New Roman that was the default font for Microsoft Word in 2004, are differentially spaced.
- The small superscript "th" in "187th" and some occurrences of "111th." It is easy to make a superscript on any typewriter -- just turn the platen. But it is not so easy to make a superscript in smaller type. A few typewriters have a special "little th" character. (An example is my Olympia SG1 -- see the key at the extreme right of the second row from the top. This typewriter is monospaced.) If your typewriter lacks such a character, you need to switch to a different type element (such as a Selectric type ball) that uses a smaller typeface, then switch back to the first type element. In contrast, Microsoft Word can automatically superscript the "th."
- Curly apostrophes. Most typewriters used straight apostrophes (as in he's). But curly apostrophes (as in he’s) are standard in word processing.
- Centering. Three lines of centered text (found at the top of two of the documents) are easy to produce on a computer. They can also be produced on any typewriter, of course, but you have to count the characters -- or, on a typewriter using differential spacing, you would actually have to measure each line of text. It would require some time-consuming arithmetic. It is possible, however, that someone who regularly typed a centered heading would do the arithmetic once, and then set tab stops for the beginning of each line for future use.
- The animated GIF below (created by blogger Charles Foster Johnson) shows just how similar one of the documents is to a word-processed document using Times New Roman font. The two documents are not identical, but the differences can probably be explained as the effects of repeated photocopying and faxing of the "Killian" documents, which would introduce distortions. The similarity is clear in all four documents; you can easily test this by typing their text in Times New Roman. (Sometimes you need to type two spaces after a period.)
The points above already make it implausible that the documents were typed on a typewriter.
In my view, the point that settles the question beyond reasonable doubt is the fact that the ends of all the lines line up exactly as if typed in the Times New Roman font. For example, consider these two lines from the document dated 01 August 1972. The text of the document is followed by two lines I have typed on a computer using Times New Roman. Notice that the period at the end of the first line is just above the left edge of the s at the end of the second line.
This is significant because it means that the document was typed on a device that used exactly the same differential-spacing system as the Times New Roman font. Another way to state this point is that the ragged right margins of the documents have exactly the same contours that are produced by the differential-spacing system of Times New Roman.
By typing the following characters in Times New Roman, you can easily verify that the font uses at least ten different character widths. (I have typed each character five times because this makes the difference in widths more immediately visible to the naked eye.)
I am unaware of any differential-spacing typewriter ever made that uses as many as ten distinct character widths. Thus, a typewritten version of the text in the documents would inevitably create lines of different lengths from those shown in the documents.
Unless a real typewriter turns up with a Times New Roman-like typeface and ten separate character widths, which furthermore assigns just the same widths to all or nearly all characters as Times New Roman does, there can be no reasonable doubt that the documents were produced with a computer.
Some further discussion of the question of differential-spacing typewriters and the "60 Minutes" documents is provided by Fred Woodworth, an Arizona printer who lays out several periodicals using Varitypers. His 2004 letter to me on this topic, written on an IBM Selectric Composer, is provided here as a PDF with his permission. In response to an objection about his typing of the text on one of the memos, Woodworth has written a followup letter in 2012 that is available here.
I am presenting this information solely as a matter of technical interest, not as a political statement (for the record, I'm a Democrat, and Woodworth describes himself as an ethical anarchist). I take no position on who produced these documents and on whether the allegations against George W. Bush are true. However, the following observations can safely be made. If these are fakes intended to look as if they were were produced in 1972 and 1973, they are remarkably inept; minimal historical and technical knowledge would have led the faker to type the documents on one of the typical monospaced typewriters of the era, which are easily available. Another possibility is that these documents were intended to be exposed as fakes, in order to discredit the accusations against President Bush; if so, the faker probably did not anticipate the technical nuances raised by the existence of 1970s differential-spacing typewriters. What is obvious in either case is that the "60 Minutes" team was remarkably gullible, and that it was irresponsible to present these documents as newsworthy evidence. In fact, even if these had been original documents that had clearly been produced with a 1970s typewriter, that in itself would not constitute any evidence that they were actually typed by Lt. Col. Killian in 1972-73.