Forgery by Typewriter

Ever since typewriters became commonly available in the late 19th century, it has been widely assumed that each typewriter is as individual as any person’s fingerprints. No less an authority than the great (though fictional) Sherlock Holmes said as much in the early 1890s, and his comments were then widely cited for decades.

At his sentencing on January 25, 1950, Alger Hiss, however, told the court, “I am confident that in the future the full facts of how Whittaker Chambers was able to carry out forgery by typewriter will be disclosed.” His opponents dismissed the notion that a typewriter could be forged as fanciful. In 1976, Richard M. Nixon recalled Hiss’s statement and, echoing Holmes, said, “Even his most ardent supporters could not swallow such a ridiculous charge. A typewriter is … almost the same as a fingerprint. It is impossible, according to experts in the field, to duplicate exactly the characteristics of one typewriter by manufacturing another one.”

At least three experts in the field – one of them J. Edgar Hoover – have asserted that the exact opposite is true. Their conclusions are summarized here:

An important aspect of Hiss’s motion for a new trial was a demonstration by Martin Tytell, who years later would be called a “typewriter wizard” in his New York Times obituary, that one typewriter could indeed be altered to match the typing of another. Tytell described the process of building a typewriter in 1950 that matched the Hiss machine.

Russell R. Bradford, a California documents examiner who spent 29 years in law enforcement – first with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department and the Santa Monica Police Department and then for 24 years with the Long Beach Police Department – in a 1992 book offered details about a series of successful, if then still top-secret, typewriter forgeries that date back to the early days of World War II. A British intelligence station on Lake Ontario in Canada had, for instance, by 1940 already become a wartime home base for “individuals who could reproduce faultlessly the imprint of any typewriter on earth.”

Hoover’s 1960 comment about the FBI’s own ability to forge typewriters was cited in a 1984 article for The Nation by a former Smith Act defendant, Gil Green. That article is presented here, along with follow-up commentary by journalist William A. Reuben, who wrote about the Hiss case for nearly half a century.