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The Straight Dope 

Why did banks settle on that very 70s futuristic--and downright awful-looking--font as the standard typeface for the routing and account numbers on checks? Is there something inherently superior about it? If so, why isn't it found on more official documents? --B. Yankee, via e-mail

Stop right there, B. You don't want to even use "70s" and "futuristic" in the same sentence. On the contrary, having lived through the era (remember Vietnam? Watergate?), I can assure you the 70s is something you want to put far in the past. The future as we know it today was invented during the Eisenhower administration, and perhaps its most iconic representation, the check-number typeface, was introduced in 1958.

What you're asking about is the font used for magnetic-ink character recognition, better known as the MICR (pronounced "MY-ker") font. It's designed to be easily read by machines when printed in magnetizable ink, making it possible to minimize check sorting by humans, which is slow and inaccurate. The need for a machine-readable font became urgent with the explosion in check use following World War II. By 1952, clerks were sorting more than 29 million checks per day by hand--work so stultifying that staff turnover at some bank processing centers was 100 percent or more annually. Processing delays also meant longer check float (the interval between initial deposit and when funds become available), an expensive inconvenience for business.

To solve the problem, the American Bankers Association established a technical committee in 1954. Three competing solutions emerged: the Stanford Research Institute (SRI) proposed what we now know as MICR coding, IBM suggested magnetic bar coding, and several companies working cooperatively came up with a system of dots printed in invisible fluorescent ink. All had their points, but MICR coding could be read by humans if the machines conked out, was resistant to damage from handling, and had a low error rate--about one goof per 100,000 checks sorted. In 1956 MICR coding got the nod.

The next big decision was font design. The original SRI typeface looked like standard typewriter output. Although this worked OK, MICR-encoded checks would have to be read by machines from several manufacturers using different engineering approaches. A committee on typeface design considered something like 11 different styles to find one that would work equally well in all machines. The winner was E-13B, the font's designation to this day--meaning drawing E, version B, with a basic line width of 13 thousandths of an inch. As you might guess, E-13B's pronounced variations in stroke thickness produce a distinctive signal for each character as the check moves past a magnetic sensor called a read head. As originally created and still employed by the banking industry, E-13B comprises only 14 characters: the digits 0 through 9 plus four syntax symbols composed of dots and bars. The matching alphabet characters devised later are useless in check processing; they just give words that groovy robot look.

E-13B isn't a global standard. When the U.S. presented E-13B and the MICR system to an international conference in 1962, the French touted their own magnetic font, CMC-7 (its characters have a bar-coded appearance, like they've gone through a bread slicer). Today much of Europe and South America uses CMC-7, while E-13B is stronger in Asia and the Middle East. Is one font inherently superior? You tell me: which is better, driving on the right or on the left?

Why do people hang catfish heads from their fences? I have looked everywhere and cannot find an explanation for this behavior. --Teresa, via the Straight Dope Message Board

Obviously you've never fished for catfish. They don't have scales, so it's fairly simple to clean them by pulling their skin right off. However, they're slimy and often pretty big, so skinning them is a two-handed job made considerably easier if you nail the head to something first. From there it's a short step to nailing up fish heads as a rural design statement. The resultant roadside displays do much to break up the monotony of a long country drive.

I grew up with a couple guys whose favored fish-head showcase was some utility poles by the creek where they fished, which were soon ringed with severed piscine noggins as high up as they could reach. We scared the bejesus out of a bunch of young whippersnappers one night by driving them out to the skull-covered poles and telling them devil worshippers were responsible, each head symbolizing another kid whacked in honor of Satan in a nearby field. In light of modern notions about post-traumatic stress disorder and what all, some will claim such behavior was deeply irresponsible, immature, etc. Eh, I dunno. People nowadays pay good money at Six Flags to get the crap scared out of them on the roller coaster. We did it for free.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Slug Signorino.

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