I’m not an expert on typewriters, but I own one and I’ve used one since at least 1967 when I took typing in high school. There are forensic document examiners that specialize in typewriters, but so far as I know, none are birthers. One birther, Paul Irey, says he was a typist, and that at one point in his career he used a typewriter for publishing. He is what birthers call “an expert.” Neither of us would ever make the cut to testify in court. But I’m a blogger, and I can write about anything.
In basic terms, a typewriter is a mechanical device that works when a type slug bearing a raised character, strikes an inked ribbon, that in turn strikes paper, leaving the imprint of a letter or symbol. A mechanism in the typewriter moves the paper after each strike to position it to receive the next letter. In the best of worlds, the typewriter would produce results like this:
What we see above is perfectly-aligned simulated typewriter printing with additional grid lines to show how each letter is perfectly centered within a conceptual horizontal region (typically one tenth of an inch wide).
The print slug sits at the end of a type bar that is swung at the paper. There is some play in that mechanism, so an additional piece of hardware is used to keep the spacing uniform; it’s called a “type bar guide.” The type bar travels through a narrowing wedge defined by the guide so that it falls dead center within the tenth of an inch region, or should. One typewriter repair manual puts it this way:
The type bar guide is an important factor in alignment. If the sides of the guide are too far apart, there will be a lot of play in the bars as they enter the guide. A summary of all the bars should be made and the type bar guide closed up by means of set screw to suit the majority of the type bars.
Type bars and guides are subject to wear:
[There is] wear on the type bar due to the constant chopping action of the type bar on the type guide at the moment of the blow of the type on the platen. No matter how hard the surface of the type guide or bar may be this constant chopping will wear the guide and as a consequence destroy the alignment.
Rudolph P. Brandt – 1926
So what does this have to do with Obama’s certificate? As I said in Part 1, birthers believe that the White House image is a composite of images from other certificates, digitally placed on the page and that differences from perfect-world horizontal spacing indicate fakery rather than normal typewriter operation. To be fair, birthers don’t say that all horizontal variation indicates fakery; they assert that horizontal variation that makes two letters overlap to any extent indicates fakery. This is, however, an arbitrary criterion. A little measurement indicates that a horizontal variation of just .03” is enough to create overlap with some letter combinations at 10 characters per inch. There is nothing to make a horizontal play of .03” less possible than a horizontal play of .02”.
Some letters are wider than others, for example “m” is wider than “i” which means that letters such as “m” can overlap other letters with a smaller standard of variation than an “i.” For example, in the following example letter pairs “ob” and “ab” do not contain overlaps, but the if the letters “WM” were placed on those type bars, they would have overlapped.
A scientific approach would be to compare examples of unquestioned typewritten document images similar to the White House image. This is a little difficult because the kinds of differences we are dealing with may involve the defects/wear/alignment of a particular typewriter and unless we have comparison samples from that particular typewriter, some guesswork is inevitable.
So let’s first establish that typewriters do not have perfect horizontal alignment, and for that purpose, I give this image taken from Jerome Corsi’s PhD thesis1 (Page 6):
You can see how the letter “t” is out of alignment. It doesn’t actually overlap, by the way. (The halo effect is in the original scan.) Something else to note is that the letter “y” in a typewriter font is a wide letter with the descender appearing as far to the left as possible. That means that it takes minimal horizontal error to make a letter overlap the following “y.”
Birthers have argued in comments on this blog both that consistent variation (for example “it” above) is a sign of fakery and that inconsistent variation is is a sign of fakery. (It has also been argued that the presence of “layers” in the PDF are a sign of fakery and that having too few layers is a sign of fakery. This points again to the lack of scientific method where speculation replaces evidence.) So which is normal, consistent variation or inconsistent variation? The answer is “both.” Look at the following samples from Corsi’s thesis (horizontally aligned on the letter “r”).
What you see is a tendency for the letters “ob” to be close together, but not always. Sometimes it looks like “rob” and sometimes “r ob.” The first one is pretty normal, but the third, sixth and eighth ones not so much. There is both consistent and random variation. From what I see on this machine, it looks like some of the type bars are a little bent and that the type bar guide is a little far open.
Horizontal variation also can be caused by the carriage (the part of the typewriter that holds and moves the paper). If the carriage doesn’t move precisely, then the paper will not be positioned properly to receive the imprint, no matter how precisely the type bar is positioned. Here’s an Barack Obama Sr. FOIA file (PDF Page 6) from the state department (and this is probably a good time to think about how well government agencies maintain their office equipment):
Stay tuned for the next episode “Forensic document stuff (Part 3—Zoom!).”
1This document is not available on the Internet, but you can order a copy on microfilm from the Harvard University Library.