Typewriter of the moment: LBJ’s teleprompter typewriter


LBJ Library photo by Mike Geissinger

July 27, 1967, in preparations for President Lyndon B. Johnson’s televised address to the Nation concerning civil unrest in American cities, an unidentified White House Staff member types President Johnson’s address for a teleprompter – LBJ Library photo by Mike Geissinger, public domain (Other sizes of photo available at LBJ Library site)

The first personal computers were more than a decade away.  Today’s teleprompters — a computer screen mounted to reflect into a glass in front of a television camera lens — had not been conceived.  Teleprompters were cathode-ray tube televisions attached to a massive television camera with a clunky device.  The image would be reversed to reflect correctly.  Into that television would be a closed-circuit feed of a scrolling piece of paper on which was typed, in very large letters, the script the speaker was to read.  In this case, of course, the speaker was the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson.

In 1967, a special typewriter was required to type out the oversized-font, easy-to-read script on a roll of paper with sprocket holes along the side to enable an automated scrolling.

Just looking at the equipment for the technology of the time is an education.

Schematic of teleprompter system, from Wikimedia Commons

Schematic of teleprompter system:
1. Video camera
2. Shroud
3. Video monitor
4. One-way mirror
5. Image from subject
6. Image from video monitor

Teleprompters allow someone reading a script to look directly into the television camera lens, giving an impression to a viewer that the person is speaking directly to them, instead of glancing down at a script and back at a camera.  Research showed viewers tend to grow disinterested in people looking down at a script, and would more likely be engaged by someone appearing to look at them.

Teleprompters existed in the 1950s, but many local television stations did not use them until into the 1960s — news broadcasts of the time often featured the anchors reading from written scripts on a desk in front of the broadcaster.  A few intrepid news anchors, throwbacks to a more theatrically-inclined era, would memorize an entire script every night.

The schematic is based on modern, smaller television cameras and modern, thin devices to project the word images.  Older versions were larger — sometimes much larger.

Ed Mason as a studio technician, adjusting the teleprompter before a local broadcast - WCIA TV (Illinois) circa 1957

Ed Mason as a studio technician, adjusting the teleprompter before a local broadcast, WCIA television, Channel 3 in Champaign, Illinois; photos from site of DougQuick.com, an on-line tour of history of broadcasting

One popular version put a simple paper scroller mounted above the lens of the very large, studio television cameras — a broadcaster’s eyes could focus an inch above the lens, and viewers couldn’t tell he or she was not looking directly into the lens.

Modern teleprompter mounted on television camera, circa 2005 - Wikipedia image

Modern teleprompter mounted on television camera, circa 2005; text is projected from a thin screen on the top of the camera lens – Wikipedia image

Teleprompters emerged as a symbolic political whipping device in the early 21st century. Partisans wishing to impugn the intelligence of a politician complain that he or she cannot speak extemporaneously, without a script. Oddly, the charge was rarely leveled at President Ronald Reagan, famous for his use of scripts in almost every situation. Reagan’s White House pushed modernizing of the technical devices employed at the White House, including the latest in teleprompter devices.

The most frequently-seen politician-used teleprompters today are simple stands, “conference” teleprompters, designed as much to allow a speaker to use teleprompters with a live audience as to facilitate television use.  The devices are simple stands with a highly-reflective, clear plastic or glass on the top, and computer screen on the floor shining up.

A modern, "conference" teleprompter

A modern, “conference” teleprompter of the style usually seen at public appearances by politicians.

Modern teleprompters cost a fraction of earlier versions.  Everybody uses them now — I’ve even heard of first-time candidates who did not have to go to teleprompter school.

Here I am, reading from a teleprompter at the George H. W. Bush Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, in 2011:

Ed Darrell tries out the Presidential podium and teleprompter

Here I am trying out the teleprompter and podium at the George H. W. Bush Library and Museum, College Station, Texas, in 2011.

And more people using teleprompters, with years in captions, so far as I can get them.

Teleprompter script used by President Kennedy; JFK Library collection, image by thewastesmile

Teleprompter script used by President John F. Kennedy, from Kennedy Library collection; image by a private party.

President Reagan using a teleprompter, in speech from the Oval Office - undated

President Reagan often used teleprompters — in a computerized form by then.

Teleprompter in use:  LBJ addresses the nation prior to signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, on July 2, 1964 - LBJ Library and Museum photo

Teleprompter in use:  In the White House East Room, President Lyndon B. Johnson used a teleprompter to address the nation in a live television broadcast, just before he signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. People watching include Attorney General Robert Kennedy, Senator Hubert Humphrey, First Lady “Lady Bird” Johnson, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, Speaker of the House John McCormack. Television cameras are broadcasting the ceremony.

A more modern use:

Judy Licht using a teleprompter in a broadcast from Italy.

Broadcaster Judy Licht using a teleprompter in broadcast or taping from Piazza Duomo, Milan, Italy, in September 2007.

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One Response to Typewriter of the moment: LBJ’s teleprompter typewriter

  1. Ellie says:

    Really? And here I thought that President Obama was the only person who used a teleprompter.

    Seriously, it’s interesting to see how our technology has changed.

    Like

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