Part of the reasoning behind my love of typewriters stems from the fact that they can be used, so conclusively, as articles of evidence – this is bad for any criminal enterprises I might have planned but is wonderful from a sense of personality and uniqueness and that’s something I really quite like. The case that I think of most fondly is the Ian Frazier (The Atlantic November 1997) article “Typewriter Man” which included a wonderful anecdote about a single key:
Mrs. Tytell tapped her clear-lacquered fingernail on a key in the upper right-hand corner of the keyboard. The key had a plus sign on top and an equal sign below. “This key on this particular kind of typewriter was the deciding piece of evidence in a multi-million-dollar fraud case I worked on a few years ago,” she said. “A younger son of a wealthy man had been specifically excluded from inheriting some theaters the father had owned. An assignment document, typewritten and with the father’s signature, gave the theaters to the older sons instead. The younger son was twelve when his father died, and he always felt that his father wouldn’t have done that to him, because his father used to take him to these theaters all the time. The younger son grew up and became a lawyer and pursued this question, and finally he came to me with the assignment document, and I found that it was typed on an Underwood of this particular model and year. The assignment document had no plus or equal signs on it, but I was able to prove that the machine that had typed it also typed other documents that did have those signs, and that was the clincher. Underwood didn’t add that particular key to their keyboard until well after the document in question was supposed to have been signed. When I explained all this to the lawyer for the older brothers, he said, ‘So what?’ A few weeks later they settled out of court for a lot of money.”
There are also stories from the days of the manual telegraph of individuals being identified by their “fist” – the subtle differences in how individual senders use their particular equipment but there is not much in terms of personality in the output from a typical printer. The nearest that happens today is that some laser printers leave some coloured dots on the paper that refer to the serial number of that printer – it’s useful for cases of fraud, ransom demands etc but there’s a huge issue of personal privacy for those times when the printer isn’t used to commit a crime but instead, say, is used to print off a primary school book report. That’s a whole different issue though. There is a method of looking up which computer posted particular methods by comparing the IP address of that particular poster with the records of the ISP that provided the internet connection – it’s the easiest method because the ISP generally possesses a real life name to bill their customers every month.
There’s a vast difference in my eyes between an expert with a loupe identifying the faint wear marks of a typewriter key on a stack of paper documents or a trained ear picking out the subtle differences in pace and pressure involved in using a telegraph key and an expert reading off a faint barcode printed between the lines on a page and cross referencing to a long chart of other codes. It’s also not nearly as interesting as a piece of sleuthing and that’s a sad change, although a much, much cheaper alternative to paying an expert with the technical skill to identify the faint, non scientific details that distinguish each typewriter and telegraph key to a legal standard of proof.
I thought the first sort of sleuthing has died out to be replaced entirely with the second kind – this sort of database and spreadsheet lookup. It’s more efficient but it’s not necessarily nicer, I quite like the old style of doing things.
That’s not necessarily the case – just as recently as early January 2009 there was a signed letter, reportedly written by the late Bob Hayes, which was read out by his sister which talked about his feelings, on 29 October 1999, which may have contributed to his death on 18 September 2002. The letter, which was photographed extensively, was not checked for its faint barcode or a property of the printer that printed it, but its typeface. The letter was typed in Calibri, a font which was invented in 2003 for its use as an internal Microsoft typeface which was then released to the world as part of Microsoft Office 2007, I think it’s a great font and I type a lot of my personal work in it. The problem is that there’s no way that Hayes could have typed out a letter in that style (Calibri) in 1999, it also couldn’t have been stored on disc and printed off on a copy of Microsoft Office 2007 because it was signed. How then could it come to have been printed in this typeface? For more details see Dallas News
Is it a forgery? I can’t say for sure based on the evidence I currently know of, but it’s quite a stretch to say that a blank page was signed and combined with a floppy disc or a CD and then printed off with the text of the letter when Microsoft released a program which contained the right font rather than someone else, who was still alive after 2002, used their new word processor’s default font on their new computer to type a letter and then signed it “Bob Hayes”. Occam’s razor says the simplest answer is usually right, is it in this case?
The letter in question - signed and typed