Typography junkies get their day in the sun

October 07, 2004|By Mike Himowitz

ALTHOUGH most of us take it for granted, the average personal computer packs far more typesetting horsepower than the best-equipped print shops could muster a couple of decades ago.

Fire up Microsoft Word, and you'll find dozens of typefaces, in an infinite variety of sizes. Install a graphics or desktop publishing program, and you'll find dozens more.

For old-timers who love the printed word and remember the clunky days of typewriters, this technology at one's fingertips still has the feel of magic. For everybody else, it's what computers do.

Thus it was that the typography junkies of the world got a real thrill this election season. Thanks to a bitter presidential contest and the reach of the Internet, digital typography - a normally obscure combination of art and science - became the centerpiece of one of the campaign's hottest controversies.

At issue were four typed memos regarding the performance of a young Texas Air National Guard pilot named George W. Bush. Purportedly written in 1972 and 1973 by the future president's commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, the documents indicated that higher-ups were pressuring Killian to paper over the fact that Bush preferred political campaigning to showing up for work as a weekend warrior.

Unveiled by anchor Dan Rather Sept. 8 on CBS' Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, the memos created a firestorm. Democrats said that they proved Bush was goofing off while his opponent, John Kerry, was getting shot up in Vietnam. Enraged Republicans shouted fraud.

When scanned versions were posted on the Web, an army of virtual detectives went to work. It didn't take long to spot something fishy: as fuzzy as it was, the type on the memos looked too good to be true. This is where the technology comes in.

In the days before computers, all but a few expensive typewriters used monospaced typefaces. With a monospaced font, each letter occupies exactly the same horizontal space on a line, although it's obvious that an "M" is much wider than an "I."

Why? It was less expensive to design a mechanism that advanced the carriage by exactly the same amount of space with each keystroke. It's that system that gives an old-fashioned typewritten page its characteristic, spaced-out look.

Until 1961, when the IBM Selectric replaced the traditional mechanism with an interchangeable, rotating ball, typewriters were also stuck with a single typeface in a single size.

Newspapers, books and other professionally-produced documents traditionally have used proportionally spaced fonts. Each character gets the amount of space it actually needs, creating a document that looks better and reads more easily.

Before the digital age, this required type to be set on monstrous, expensive and outrageously complex Linotype machines, which skilled operators used to cast type in hot lead, one line a time.

During the mid-1970s, publishers began switching to computer systems and phototypesetters that produced a high quality of type directly on paper. But the technology was still too expensive for anyone but professionals.

It wasn't until the 1980s that the Apple Macintosh brought true digital typesetting to the desktop, and with the release of Windows 95 a decade later, proportional, scalable typefaces were available to everyone. That proved to be a key point in "Memogate."

The CBS memos were purportedly created more than 30 years ago. But to some eyes, primarily Republican, they appeared to be written in a proportional typeface that curiously resembled Times New Roman, the digital version of a famous typeface designed in 1931 for The Times of London. It is packaged with Microsoft Windows and used by default in virtually every Windows document.

Not only was the typeface suspicious, so were the superscript letters that appeared with numbers in some of the documents, in words such as "111th F.L.S." Moreover, the type in the memo appeared to employ kerning, a sophisticated trick that improves appearance by making minute adjustments in spacing between particular pairs of letters.

Was it possible to produce such a document on the desktop in 1972? Hordes of GOP faithful scoured the Web, looking for old typewriter catalogs and manuals. Conservative blog sites such as freerepublic.com and thegantelope.com posted digital overlays of the original documents, along with excited debates about line space adjustments and width tables.

Assuming that Killian hadn't sent the memos off to a professional typesetter, the Bush defenders concluded - and I believe they're right - that only two typewriters available in 1972 could have produced anything resembling those documents.

One was the IBM Executive, an expensive, traditional machine reserved for the offices of top corporate officials. The other was the IBM Selectric Composer, one of the first true desktop typesetters, which cost at least $3,600 (the equivalent of $16,000 today) and required even more time and training to use properly.

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