1960s Typing and Typewriter Technology

Dennis never talked about how he typed his thesis, from the evidence we have it is not possible to tell  on what device it was created. The most likely scenario is that he used a standard electric typewriter which by and large was the only option for students in the 1960s. In the custom of the day he might have typed it himself or might have hired a technical typist to do it for him.  

The standard options available at the time were either the IBM Selectric or a traditional basket-and-typebar machine such as an IBM Model D or an Olivetti. Our typefont expert Chuck Bigelow has not been able to find a Selectric font from the period that exactly matches Dennis’ dissertation, and IBM archivist Max Campbell told us that “I am not aware of any forensic experts that could examine the pages to see if a Selectric was used for the typing. The only thing that I can think of that would be definitive proof that he used a Selectric would be a photo of him in action typing the thesis.”

Selectric Typewriter
Olivetti Lettera 32

According to Dennis’ grad school colleague (and brother of his advisor Patrick) Mike Fischer:

“I believe the secretaries at Harvard in the mid-1960’s were using either the IBM Model C Hektowriter or the IBM Model D, introduced in 1967. They looked very similar, and there was probably a transition period when both were in use. They were the last of the typebar typewriters and would have worked with the box of manual special characters that I described on the phone. (I still can’t find any mention of them on the internet, but I’m certain that my professional typist used them when typing my thesis, which was also full of them.)”
IBM - Model D
IBM - Model C

According to Dennis’ grad school colleague, Mike Fischer:

“Computerized typesetting was in its infancy in the 1960s. Of course people had the idea of having the computer print their paper instead of a typist, but printers were limited in both their quality and their range of allowed fonts… for the time that Dennis was at Harvard, it was electric typewriters.”

Brian Kernighan described the general state of typing affairs in the mid-1960s in “UNIX – a History and a Memoir”, pg 99. –

…It may be hard for readers today to appreciate just how labor-intensive it was to prepare documents before the creation of word processing programs, when there were only mechanical typewriters – better than clay tablets or quill pens, to be sure, but any change of more than a few words in a document would require a complete retype.  Thus most documents went through only one or two revisions, with handwritten changes on a manuscript that had to be laboriously retyped to make a clean copy.”

In 2010, mathoverflow.net launched a discussion asking people to describe what it was like to type a math thesis before LaTex became available in the 1980s. Here is a link to the discussion board and below is a sampling of the descriptions from that thread:

“I typed my thesis in late Winter 1963, on an IBM Executive in the Bowdoin College Math Dept office after hours. This was before the Bouncing Ball (Selectric), but it had two or three removable type-bars at the side, and we had a couple of dozen special bars, each with its own character. If you wanted to type “αβαβ”, you’d have to remove the alpha-stick and attach the beta-stick. I think that there were relatively few characters I had to put in by hand: pp maybe, and certainly the inclusion symbols. It took me 45 minutes or so per page, and according to the rules at Harvard, there could be no corrections on any page (not even white-out).”
“I paid a secretary through the nose to type my thesis in 1964, doing much of it myself, and using carbon paper to get a copy. Lots of handwritten graphs of spectral sequences. The memory of that horrid process may be one reason I never published my thesis. It is roughly 150 pages of dense calculations.”
“My father was a mathematician, and, before the IBM Selectric typewriter, I can tell you that he bought an expensive manual German typewriter along with boxes of these plastic sticks, each with a metal head containing a math symbol. Very slow and very painful.”
“Later, department secretaries (there used to be more of them) would have IBM Selectric typewriters, which would use a metal coated plastic ball, and you would switch the ball to get different symbols. This normally worked pretty well, except sometimes the teeth on the bottom of the ball (which was serrated for some reason) would break. This would mess up the typing action, so it would no longer type the symbol or character properly.”
“I paid the technical typist in our department to type my PhD thesis on her IBM Selectric typewriter. After it was complete, I noticed that she had omitted an entire paragraph of one of the proofs in an early chapter. To correct this would have required her to retype a large chunk of the thesis, so I let it pass. During my defense, the external examiner remarked that this particular proof was a little terse…”
Mike Fischer described his typing experience in vivid terms…
With my own thesis, I began by typing a rough draft myself that I then edited using scissors and tape and pencil and white-out. 

Once a page became too patched up, I made a Xerox copy to create a clean new version that I could then edit and chop further as needed.  Once my draft was finalized, I paid $500 to a professional typist ($4,300 today) to retype it into a final dissertation that I could bind and submit to Widener Library.  I specifically recall that my typist used typebar special characters, which would have meant that she used an IBM Model C or D typebar typewriter.”
When he wrote RUNOFF, Jerry Seltzer did everything he could to avoid equations and other exotic expressions, because of their difficulty.  According to Jerry…
“The standard procedure for preparing a Ph.D. thesis in the 1960s was to assemble a rough draft either by typing or in longhand and then hire a professional thesis typist.  I wrote RUNOFF to avoid the need for the professional typist. If you look skeptically at its list of features you will discover that it includes just enough to allow me to prepare my own Ph.D. thesis, nothing more.  For example, my thesis had no equations, so RUNOFF had no facility for them.  Development of RUNOFF features ended in 1966 when I turned in my thesis.”
Kernighan, who rewrote RUNOFF into Roff using punch cards programmed in Fortran to print his Princeton PhD in 1968, avoided use of mathematical expressions as much as possible because the IBM 1403 line printer he used couldn’t handle them.    
“I didn’t do subscripts or superscripts, and special characters were inserted by hand after the fact.”
All this is meant to emphatically present how really hard, really time consuming, really detailed, really laborious, it was to type a math paper in the 1960s. And the longer the paper and more complicated the equations, the even harder than that.
In the “Anatomy of a Thesis” section we address the dmr thesis in detail, all 180 pages. There we illustrate how “Program Structure and Computational Complexity” was probably the most typographically complex and difficult thesis of the decade, it was so densely packed with perfectly formed math symbols and multi-tiered equations.
In this section we want to briefly describe the state of the mathematical typing art in the 1960s, to give an idea of what the papers actually looked like back then. We’ve found a trove of scanned PhD dissertations on the MIT and Dartmouth websites, examined as many mathematics dissertations from the 1960s that we could find.  
Through this we hope you’ll get a deeper sense of what a monumental amount of work, and creative effort, it must have been to produce what Dennis did.  
And, to cause even more wonder about why he then chose to bury all this groundbreaking typographic work along with the rest of the thesis. For the rest of his life he never talked about this typing experience with anyone, not his Bell Labs colleagues, not his family.
The sample dissertations pages we have reviewed, all of which showcased are from Dartmouth, tend to all fit into one of three categories: Hand Crafted, Custom Stylized, or Line Height Grid.

Hand Crafted

At Dartmouth students could write math equations in pen and many of them did so to avoid having to manipulate the typewriter. With some dissertations the positioning of sub-and-superscripts is not consistent or uniform. These typists are getting by, doing the best they can with a weak skill set. Hand lettering was not allowed at Harvard.

Custom Styled

Some theses demonstrate strong, consistent typography that has a distinguished style.  It may have been that technical typists back then each had their own signature style, there certainly was not a push for uniform standards.

We found a great article describing the way in which the expression of mathematical equations during this era could be seen as an art form, an essay by Eddie Smith called “From boiling lead and black art: An essay on the history of mathematical typography”. This sheds light on the popularity of “custom styled” math dissertations, perhaps helps to explain their pervasiveness.


Line Height Grid

Some typists took advantage of the “1/2 Line” adjustment that these typewriters all had, to consistently position sub-and-superscripts exactly 1/12” down or up from current line. It turns out that typewriter characters are about 1/12” high, so when the typist adjusts a line height by 1/12” then types a new character, it perfectly lines up in position of subscript or superscript. Dennis’ thesis in fact is a masterwork of this system. 

When asked about this feature of the dmr thesis, Mike Fischer explained this way…

“The fact that it was typed on a 1/12″ x 1/12″ grid is no surprise to me.  12 characters/inch was the standard “elite” typewriter.  6 lines/inch was also standard, but the IBM typewriters had a platen that would allow half-spacing, i.e., 12 half-spaces per inch.  So there was no need to do manual continuous positioning in order to type a page where all letters ended up on the grid.  Rather, in order to type a superscript “2”, one would roll the paper down one click, type the”2″, and roll it back up one click to continue.  This of course was rather clumsy, and other typing order might be possible.  For example, if one is copying an existing line with superscripts, one might leave a 1/2 line for the superscripts, then type the line with spaces where the superscripts are needed, then move the paper down one click, and go back and fill in the missing superscripts.  I don’t recall, but this is the kind of thing that I would have thought of at the time and might well have done myself since it greatly reduces the amount of platen movement.“

What has really surprised us is how so few dissertations from the 1960s used this technique. Research is ongoing…

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