What are the glass squares on either side of the presidential podium?

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Dear Cecil: When the President makes speeches you often see two squares of glass mounted on stands on either side of the podium. What are they for? Jim L., Phoenix


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

They’re teleprompters — you didn’t think the Prez actually memorized all those speeches, did you? The glass squares, which are called “beam splitters,” are coated in such a way that they act as mirrors for the person at the podium while appearing transparent to people in the audience. They’re carefully angled so that they pick up the text of the speech off TV monitors lying face up on the floor and reflect it toward the speaker.

The whole business is orchestrated offstage by a technician who slowly reels a typed copy of the speech past a closed-circuit TV camera, which transmits it to the TV monitors and thence to the beam splitters and the speaker. This enables you to read your speech directly off the glass without having to glance down at the lectern, thus giving the impression that you’re a bold, dynamic kinda guy who can maintain eye contact with the audience. (Remember, the glass looks transparent from their side.) The fact that you can shift your gaze from one glass to the other adds to the illusion. The audience seldom tumbles to what’s going on and figures the beam splitters are bulletproof shields or something. (They’re not.)

Presidential teleprompters are supplied by a New York outfit called Q-Tv, which also does business with many other politicians and corporate executives. The firm makes a similar gimmick for use on the cameras found in TV studios. Years ago, when the teleprompter was mounted above or to the side of the lens, you had to look slightly off camera to read the script, making it appear you couldn’t stand to look anybody in the eye. Nowadays a beam splitter is mounted right in front of the lens. You can read your script while appearing to gaze directly into the camera like a man (or woman, if that’s what you are). The glass is transparent when seen from the back and thus does not interfere with the normal operation of the camera. And here you probably thought all those ex-jocks-turned-commentator were geniuses because they never consulted notes when doing a stand-up intro. Ha. With most of those guys you’d have better luck getting an ad-lib out of Pinocchio.

Q-Tv update

Dear Cecil:

Thank you for your comprehensive report on our Q-Tv prompting system. To update your story, the system is now computerized. The text or “copy” is prepared on a word processor and stored on a floppy disc. At performance time, the text is then fed into a computer, which transmits it to the beam-splitter glasses mounted at the speaker’s podium or in front of the lens. Flow of the text is regulated by a technician via a variable-speed hand control, to keep it synchronized with the speaker’s delivery. Use of the computer results in a text image brighter and more sharply defined that in earlier generations of the system. More important, it greatly facilitates copy revision. Instead of re-typing or hand-lettering copy changes, the technician can make instantaneous revisions via the computer keyboard.

— John K., Q-Tv, Hollywood, California

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.