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Teich's Tech Tidbit of the Week
March 4, 2002
The Mimeograph Machine

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Mimeograph machine


Most readers of this page will probably not remember the mimeograph and its close cousin, the ditto (or hectograph) machine, the copiers of choice before modern photocopiers (generically but incorrectly known as Xerox machines) became ubiquitous. 

When I was in elementary and high school in the 1950s, these machines (of somewhat newer vintage than the one pictured above) were what you used to make copies.  But you didn't just insert the page you wanted copied and push a button.  First, you had to make a stencil.  This was done by placing a sheet of special stencil paper in a typewriter (almost always a manual typewriter in those days), setting the ribbon control to "stencil" and typing whatever it was you wanted to copy.  The stencil setting was necessary so that the typewriter keys--see my Tidbit of the Week on the Typewriter if these terms are unfamiliar to you--made direct contact with the paper and actually cut through it instead of hitting the ribbon as it did in normal typing. Of course you could also cut a stencil by hand, if you preferred.

The finished stencil was placed on the mimeograph's drum (see the picture), the surface of which contained ink. When the drum was turned (originally with a hand crank, later by an electric motor), a blank sheet of paper was drawn in from the tray, pressed against the drum where the ink came through the stencil and printed the copy, and passed out the other side. Maybe it went smoothly for the professionals, but for most of us it was a messy business. Ink got on your hands and sometimes your clothes. If the stencil wasn't placed just right, it wrinkled and made illegible copies. Many typewriters cut the stencils too deeply so that the centers of most "o"s, "g"s, and similar letters were filled in. Sometimes the stencil wore out before enough copies were made.  And so on.

Four names are associated with the early history of this technology: Thomas Edison, who invented an electric pen that cut stencils in 1876; Eugene Zuccato, who came up with an improved method of cutting stencils the following year; David Gestetner, a Hungarian immigrant working in London, who came up with an even simpler and more effective stencil cutter in 1881; and A. B. Dick of Chicago, who came up with a device similar to Edison's and persuaded him to collaborate in marketing it as "The Edison Mimeograph" in 1887. 

The technology had important impacts on office procedures, small-scale publishing, education, and many other fields. But it rapidly became obsolete beginning in the 1960s, as xerographic copiers, computers, laser and ink-jet printers, and desktop publishing software became cheaper, more sophisticated and far more capable. It's easy to forget, though, what a bother it was to make copies just a few decades ago.

Links:
= highly recommended

Antique Copying Machines, from the Early Office Museum.  An illustrated history of copying technology, part of an intriguing site for office technology junkies. (Check out some of the early pencil sharpeners and staplers.)

"Mimeograph Machine."  A brief, straightforward description of the device, one of the technology pages on the web site of Karnes City High School (Karnes City, Texas, population 3,000).

"What is a Mimeograph Machine?" On Lingual Links, a site that supports language fieldwork.

"Re: Mimeograph" A listserv posting on BookArts Web, "the electronic meeting place for all facets of the book arts."

"Dead medium: The Copy Press, the Hektograph, Edison'sElectric Pen, Zuccato's Trypograph, Gestetner's Cyclostyle, Dick-Edison Mimeograph, the Gammeter aka Multigraph, the Varityper, the IBM Selectric," by Darryl Rehr, originally published in The Office Magazine; posted by the Dead Media Project. By far the best history of the mimeograph and related technologies to be found on the web.

The A.B. Dick Company, which claims to have marketed the first commercial mimeograph in 1887, has some information about its history on its web site.

The Duplicators page on The Virtual Typewriter Museum has pictures and short descriptions of some early copying machines.

Duplicating in the Year B.C.--Before (xerographic) Copies. On Graphic Comm Central.  A chapter in Printings Past, a collection of online essays by Frank Granger.  An interesting historical piece on mimeographs and related devices.

"Mimeo Revolution," description of a 1998 exhibit at the New York Public Library documenting underground literature, much of which was produced on mimeograph machines.

History of the Secretarial Profession -- describes the role of the mimeograph machine in this context (on the site of the International Association of Office Professionals).  Includes an office technology timeline.

"Chalk It Up to Change," by Barbara S. Miller, The South Hills [Pennsylvania] Observer-Reporter (April 14, 2000).  "Mimeographs and transparencies a dying breed  at [Upper St. Claire] High School." 

Advertisement for the Edison 76 Mimeograph Machine (from a 1912 issue of The American Magazine).  An automatic business-builder, time-saver, and expense-cutter.

Yesterday's Office -- a site for antique office equipment collectors.

Gestetner Mimeo Equipment.  The only place on the web that I was able to find mimeograph machines for sale.  These machines belong to Ned Brooks of Lilburn, Georgia, who also has a fairly strange assortment of stuff on his site, much of it for sale. Gestetner still exists, now selling digital document management systems.  Their web site, however, is a disaster.

"The Way We Worked," from the Wisconsin Council for Local History.  Among the recollections, "the steady rhythm achieved operating the church's old mimeograph machine by hand. . . "

"Todd's Improved Edison-Mimeograph Typewriter, 1894, made by A. B. Dick Co., Chicago."  Description and photo of a typewriter originally designed to cut stencils for mimeograph machines adapted to write Braille for blind people by Mr. Todd of Kansas City.  On the site of the American Printing House for the Blind.

"Mimeo Mimesis." Please don't ask me what this page is about.  I have no idea.

Jennifer Vogelsong, "College exec preserves history in his office," The Carlyle (Pennsylvania) Sentinel (January 13, 2002).  The president of Central Pennsylvania in Summerdale keeps an old mimeograph and many other artifacts in his office.

"From Mimeograph to the Internet:  A Brief History of My Self-Publishing," a chronicle of Robert Ashworth's "life in the slow lane."


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