Some of my favorite words to type are words like Starwars, milky, graves, moon, cabbages, and jumpy. The thing I like about them is the thing they have in common: They’re all meant to be typed entirely by one hand or the other. The satisfaction I feel when words like these happen across my path is what originally gave me the idea to retype an entire book one hand at a time.
Of all books, why did I choose to retype Space by Clark Coolidge? It would be too simplistic to say I chose it because I love it. I chose it because I don’t understand it but at the same time I’m very drawn to it. And yes, I do love it but moreover Space has been haunting my brain since the first time I read it years ago for a class. This project really began as a method of doing a very close reading in order to satisfy my curiosity and to learn more about a body of work by a poet who I admire.
I wanted to understand how Space does what it does. Beyond the simple pleasure of typing words one-handed, I wanted to see if my method of pulling words apart would reveal sound patterns, letter repetitions, and minute characteristics of language that are more difficult to detect when looking at words whole. I wanted to strip things down to an almost unreadable, unpronounceable, but very visual level. I had no idea at the time that the initial idea would take on a life all of its own having little to do with my original intentions.
What Word Can’t Say
If you had told me a year ago that I would drive 2600 miles in the dead of January from Salt Lake City to the Ozarks to pick up a 45 year old typewriter; or that I would find the key to unblocking my path buried in the 2005 resignation of Dan Rather from CBS 60 Minutes; or that I would join a Yahoo Group for typewriter enthusiasts; or that I would spend my summer getting to know Utah’s entire population of typewriter repairmen, I would not have believed you.
So how did all those things come about? It begins with Word. I originally started typing Space in a Word document, the shortcomings of which, led me to a series of discoveries culminating in the birth of a new mission: To retype Space using the same model of machine originally used to typeset Space, the IBM Selectric Composer, circa 1966.
Though I could already see that the results of my experiment looked promising, I didn’t get very far before I realized that I could not replicate the exact alignment and spacing of the original. I assumed that solving the problem would simply be a matter of locating the correct font. I found the font information I needed without too much searching on an endsheet at the back of the book:
My next step would be to find Journal Roman font somewhere online and download it.
Ra th ergate
My Google search results for Journal Roman font were an unhelpful mix of Roman history sites, retailers selling journals, and Font marketplaces. I uploaded samples of the text into every font marketplace I could find but turned up nothing but wing dings. I continued to comb through search results until finally I found a mention of Journal Roman font on a blog from 2005. The blog mentioned Journal Roman in reference to a scandal involving President George W. Bush’s military record.
In 2004, just months before the presidential election, CBS’s 60 Minutes broke a story centered on some newly resurfaced memos negatively documenting Bush’s military service in the Texas Air National Guard. Within hours of the broadcast, typewriter and typography experts came out of the woodwork claiming the memos were faked. After a couple weeks of CBS staunchly defending the documents’ authenticity, the scandal ended with the firing of several producers as well as Dan Rather’s resignation.
Though it is now widely agreed that the forgeries were typed using Times New Roman, formatted on a computer, and then made to look old via photocopying a copy of a copy of a copy, countless amateur typophiles hit the blogospere with their own theories.
Most bloggers concluded that based on the year the memos were said to have been typed (1972-1973), the proportionally spaced font, and the superscripted th, only a computer would have been able to do all those things. However, the blog I stumbled across in my search for Journal Roman font argued that the memos could in fact be authentic because there existed at least one machine at the time was capable of all the requisite functionality and possessed a font very similar to Times New Roman — Journal Roman. That machine was the IBM Selectric Composer. I then learned that Journal Roman font was only ever available on the Composer.
So, if Space was set in Journal Roman font and published in 1970, that would mean that it was typed using an IBM Selectric Composer. That would also mean that in order to replicate the spacing of the book, I would also need to retype it using a Composer.
Realizing that my project just got 100 times more interesting and complicated, I began my search for a working Composer and the requisite Journal Roman font balls.
Of course, there were other options. I could have created font and replicated the spacing using InDesign. But something about that option not only seemed lazy and boring to me but also wrong, like cheating. If I genuinely wanted to understand how Space works, what better way than to experience typing the book on the machine originally used.
About the Composer
IBM’s first model of Composer was introduced in 1966. Though much more expensive than today’s average software, it offered what desktop publishing software offers today: the ability to produce professional looking copy in the home or office. The Composer is able to justify text margin to margin using mechanical memory. The machine is able to remember a limited number of characters and then add the correct number of spaces needed to justify the text.
The mechanical memory component of the Composer is called the Chockablock. The Chockablock is a wheel with holes all the way around corresponding to an equal number of pins. For every character typed, a pin is set in the wheel as a place holder. Later versions of the composer include the magnetic card reader Composer which used magnetic tape to record limited quantities of characters and then replay them with the additional spaces necessary for justifying the text. It wasn’t until 1975 that IBM introduced the Electronic Composer that utilized electronic memory to justify copy. From a media archaeology standpoint, these machines could be thought of as a kind of missing link or a prototype in the technological evolution from electric typewriters to computers with word processing and desktop publishing software.
Ebay: A Cautionary Tale
No sooner had I typed “IBM Selectric Composer for Sale” into Google, than I immediately found a “100% working IBM Selectric Composer” on eBay. It was the Electronic Selectric model introduced in 1975, five years after Space was published but I decided to buy it anyway, not knowing when another machine might come along.
Tragically, the Composer arrived broken to pieces. The eBay seller, having managed to give zero fucks about the delicacy of such a large and heavy (80lbs) machine, had dumped it in a box with some crumpled paper and sent it on its way.
At the time, I was spared the full weight of the tragedy, not yet comprehending just how rare these machines are, and not yet knowing how long it would be before I would find another one or to what lengths I would have to go to get my hands on it.
The Girl with the Most Font Balls
I was far more successful in acquiring the requisite Journal Roman font balls — despite losing what would have been the score of the century on eBay due to a misunderstanding about Military Time. In the end, I had to buy several “lots” of font balls just to scrape together the few point sizes of Journal Roman that I would need.
I am now the proud owner of 74 font balls. Such a claim to fame might be kind of cool except that Composer font balls cannot be used on a regular Selectric typewriter, which is the vastly more common and reliable machine. All other models of Selectric typewriters are able to share font balls, but not the Composer because the Composer uses proportionally spaced type and therefore will not function on a regular Selectric.
Despite my rapid accumulation of font balls, I still needed a machine on which to take them for a spin. Rather than send the broken Electronic Composer back to the seller for a full refund, I negotiated a partial refund and retained the broken machine on the off chance that it could be repaired. Meanwhile, I scoured the internet daily for another machine. I made phone calls and sent emails to every place I could think of that might have a lead.
A 2014 Survey of Typewriter Repairmen of the West “Where are they now?”
Typewriter repairmen, it turns out, are a dying breed. Most of the typewriter repair businesses listed in the phonebook were just defunct phone numbers. A couple were the personal cell phone numbers of people whose businesses had failed over a decade ago but who hadn’t bothered to change their number because no one was calling for typewriter repair. I spoke to one woman who bitterly recounted the story of going out of business after her last remaining typewriter technician mangled his hand and was no longer able to keep up with repairs. The only typewriter repair businesses still in operation were the ones who had managed to diversify their service repertoire to include photocopiers, printers, fax machines, etc.
The first shop I visited had only one tech old enough to have experience repairing typewriters; he was the 80 year old retired original owner of the shop. Here is a 2005 Deseret News article about him, including a photo. Dave was familiar with the Composer but he refused to get involved, explaining that even if the damage could be repaired, parts would need to be acquired second hand. And because the machines are so rare, the parts would be nearly impossible to find. He told me he hadn’t seen a Composer in 30 years and encouraged me to get a computer.
After months of nothing but dead ends, I finally found a repair shop who agreed to help insofar as to give me the name and phone number of a retired IBM technician who might be willing to help. Wayne was the first person who was unfazed by the idea of someone wanting to repair a Composer and agreed to take a look. I drove the Composer to his house about an hour north of Salt Lake and left it with him hoping for the best. Eight hours later, Wayne called with good news and bad news. He said that he was able to get the Composer working but that some of the letter keys as well as the keys that control justification were working unreliably at best. He sent me home with a bent paperclip that I could use to manually unstick the broken keys after pressing them down. It was better than nothing.
That night, I sat down with the Composer and the instruction manual to practice using the machine. The next day when I sat down to begin retyping Space, all the keys had stopped working and the machine was frozen. Already several hundred dollars in, I decided to abandon the broken machine and focus all energy on finding another Composer. Back to square one.
Eureka! I’ve Found It!
I continued searching the internet daily and calling anyone I could think of. I asked everyone I know for leads. One day, my boss sent me a link to a CBS Sunday Morning video about the owner of a typewriter repair and retail shop in Arizona whose business was booming in the midst of a typewriter renaissance. I looked up the shop’s phone number and gave Bill a call. He was very nice but said he hadn’t seen a composer for 30 years. And then he told me about a Yahoo Group for typewriter enthusiasts. I joined the group as soon as I got off the phone. I sent a message to the whole group introducing myself as “a typewriter enthusiast” and asking if anyone had a Composer or knew where I might find one.
The very next day I received a response from someone named Clark (!) who had a Composer but wasn’t sure if it was working or what problems it might have. For a minute the thought occurred to me that this could be Clark Coolidge, but of course nothing is perfect. Clark said he was in the middle of a typewriter restoration at the moment but he would look at his Composer next. The model of Composer he had was the original model introduced in 1965, which would have been the same model used to typeset Space. I continued to email Clark for updates. In August, he began to work on the Composer. Months went by with no word. Meanwhile, I continued fruitlessly searching day in and day out for any lead on a Composer for sale.
Finally, a few days before Christmas, Clark emailed to say that he had the Composer working and I made plans to drive out and pick it up. Fully realizing now how rare they are, I couldn’t risk damaging another Composer in shipping and it would be too large and heavy to carry onto a plane. The timing was perfect since I had two weeks off work for the holidays. However, later that night Clark called with bad news. He said that after attempting one small final adjustment to the machine, everything went haywire. He said it was like a chain reaction and that all the work he had done had been undone. He explained that he did not have any more time to spend on the repairs before Christmas. In fact, he had been spending so much time working on it already that his wife had reached her limit, and he himself had more than once considered throwing it off a cliff. In fact, he was so frustrated with it that he couldn’t make any promises to continue working on it ever.
I thanked him for all he had done and assumed I’d never hear from him again. BUT on New Year’s Eve he called! After a vacation and some time away from his workbench, he had given it another try and this time it was easier. He was able to make all the adjustments and get it working again. By then, I was out of vacation time so I had to get from Salt Lake City to Arkansas and back in less than 4 days. Praying to the typewriter Gods for good weather, I set off on a Friday after work trying to outrun the immanent storm headed for the Wasatch Front.
Utah to Arkansas (and back) in 4 Days
I made it to Laramie WY the first night. The sky was clear but the temperature was below 20 degrees and the road was a sheet of black ice with high winds picking up drifts of snow and erasing the road with total white out conditions. Needing to press on but not wanting to push my luck, I decided to stop for the night. I made it safely the rest of the way through Wyoming and all the way to Witchita the following day. The day after that was the day that I would finally meet my Composer and the man who fixed it!
It took 6 hours to get from Witchita to Eureka Springs where Clark and his wife own a gorgeous Bed & Breakfast. I spent only a couple of hours hanging out with Clark and getting a crash course on how to use the Composer before I had to get back on the road. I still had to make it back to Witchita plus a couple hours beyond that night so I said my goodbyes to Clark and the Evening Shade B&B and set off toward home. The final day of the journey included another harrowing crossing of Wyoming in 70MPH wind. I can’t really describe how I felt watching semi-trucks blowing over and crashing every few miles. Seemingly against all odds, but no worse for the wear than a cracked windshield, I pulled into my driveway around midnight and hefted the precious cargo into the house.
Settling the Score
I finally had the font balls and a working machine in a room together! The Flight of the Conchords song Business Time comes to mind. Now it was just a matter of feeding paper in and typing! Not so fast. Though I had a theoretical idea of what proportional spacing meant, and Clark had explained in great detail how the machine justifies text, I still had no idea how I was actually going to reverse engineer the spacing of the book. After typing a test page, it became clear the replacing a letter with a space would not even remotely reproduce the correct spacing. I turned to the user manual for guidance and learned why.
A standard space on the Composer equals 3 units while different letters can equal anywhere between 2 and 9 units. So swapping out a 3 unit space for a 9 unit letter was not going to work. Luckily, it turns out that the space bar is adjustable. The same dial that controls justification settings can be used to set the space bar from 2 units up to 9 units or anywhere in between. In order to faithfully reproduce the spacing, I would need to set the space bar to the unit count for a given letter.
Realizing that I would need some form of notation to follow, I began working on a score which would allow me to type the correct letters interspersed with accurately measured spaces. In practice, it works in a similar way to reading music at a piano. But the thing I like best about the score is that it translates the spaces of Space — in a way, giving a voice to the machine itself.
The irony of waiting nearly a year to get my hands on this typewriter only to end up typing the book in its entirety on a computer first was not lost on me. Nevertheless, I typed the book (turning a blind eye to the inaccuracy of the computer’s monospacing) and made a copy of the document naming one Left and the other Right. I used Find and Replace to find each letter belonging to the left hand and replace it with its character unit value. I did the same thing with the Left document, replacing all the right hand letters with their character unit values. I had to perform a find and replace not only for lower case letters but also upper case letters, all punctuation, and numbers.
Interestingly, most of the character units on the left side of the keyboard are even numbered while the right side has more odd numbered characters. Though it is perhaps beyond the scope of this project, I’m wondering if there’s a reason for that hidden in the history of the QWERTY keyboard design.
Another discovery I made while working on the typing-score for Space, which made me wonder if Clark Coolidge was maybe a little inspired by the Composer, was the occurrence of the word Chockablock as well as the word pin (which shows up repeatedly throughout the book but most strikingly on p.46 pin pin pin pin pin pin). Though I had read the book before, I had never given a second thought to the word Chockablock until now.
How to Reverse Engineer Space
With the score finished, I was finally ready to start typing! The typing process begins with the plotting of a page. To plot a page, I lay a piece of typing paper over a page of the original book and use a pencil to plot the placement of each line. I plot the page twice, side by side with the paper in landscape orientation. With my left and right scores open on my laptop, I type each line twice from left to right.
Before I feed a plotted sheet of paper into the Composer, I first have to change the font ball to the larger point size for the title and set the corresponding line advancement and color-coded point size lever to match the point size of the font ball. I then set a left margin and feed the paper into the Composer. After typing the title on the left and the right plus 2 carriage returns, I switch out the font ball to a smaller point size and change the line advancement and color coded point size to correspond. Then it’s just a matter of getting through the body of the page without making any typos. If I make a typo, I have to start over from the beginning, first plotting a fresh sheet, etc. Each page takes 2-3 hours if I make no mistakes. Keeping in mind that some of the pages are still a little rough and might eventually need to be retyped, here is a sneak peak of how the book is progressing.
Space by Clark Coolidge
CBS 60 Minutes controversy blog
A timeline of the IBM Typewriter
A rare type: Computers have thinned the ranks of typewriter repair folks Deseret News May 9 2005
CBS Sunday Mornings: A typewriter Renaissance
- Amy Letter
- Cock Fight Documentation