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Copiers Through the Years

Updated on January 9, 2014
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Early method of copying

Those of you who have read about my early years already know that I was 'educated' for the first eight grades in a one room country school. There was no telephone, no running water (well and pump outside), no electricity, but a huge coal burning furnace. Needless to say, there were no modern conveniences.

During my last four years (4-8 grades), I had the same teacher who grouped all of us according to ability; that is, we were given the same worksheets if we read at the 5th grade level, for example. Obviously, she would need a few pages that were just alike.

The teacher's duplicating process

This process was called a hectograph or gelatin duplicator or jellygraph. It is a printing process which involves the transfer of an original, that has been prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin. Just think of a jelly roll baking pan filled with unflavored gelatin. That is how it looked to me and it was really fascinating to see and to watch her make the copies.

First, she would write the lesson, using a special pen for this purpose. The ink was purple and she would write a lesson or quiz on the back of special paper. She then laid the special paper, ink side down, on the gelatin, taking care that it was alligned accurately and that there were no wrinkles.

After transfer of the image to the inked gelatin surface, copies were made by pressing paper against it. When a pad ceased to be useful for any reason, the ink was carefully cleaned from the top of the gelatin and the gelatin pad was ready to be reused for the next master. Care was needed to keep the gelatin smooth and clean.

The Ditto copier

A few years later, most of us in offices and other places where a number of copies were needed, used the spirit duplicator which was invented in 1923. The best-known manufacturer of these in the United States and the world was the Ditto Corporation of Illinois.

The Ditto was much easier and quicker to use then the gelatin variety described above. One could write or type on a master, which was then inserted in a holding device on the machine. I've only used dark blue or purple ink but understand there were a variety of colors.

The mimeograph copy machine

The mimeograph copy machine was invented by A. B. Dick in 1884. This machine used heavy waxed-paper stencils that a pen or a typewriter was able to cut through. To copy, the stencil was wrapped around the drum of the (manual or electrical) machine, which forced ink out through the cut marks on the stencil. The paper used for printing was similar to modern copy paper and the ink was black and odorless. The person operating the machine had to be very careful not to get the ink on clothing ... it was virtually impossible to remove!

More copies could be made using this process and, as I remember, the stencil could be saved to make more copies at a later date. As I also recall, it was possible to correct typos if was done carefully and only one or two letters in one word was to be corrected. Needless to say, the goal was 100% accuracy.

Differences between the ditto and the mimeograph

Ditto machines and mimeograph machines were competing and complementary technologies during the first half of the 20th century. Mimeography was generally a more forgiving technology, and still survives in various forms into the 21st century.

Ditto machines required much finer operating tolerances and careful adjustments to operate correctly. Overall print quality of spirit duplicators was frequently poor, though a capable operator could overcome this with careful adjustment of feed rate, pressure, and solvent volume.

Source: Wikipedia

Commonly used copiers of today

Should my grade school teacher encounter one of our modern copiers, she would be astounded, shocked, and speechless. Imagine the gelatin copier of her experience alongside one that can print one or two sides, collate the copies in a specified order, staple, and hole punch. To do this, one can use one or more copies as a master or scan in a master. What a marvel!

Yes, they are marvelous inventions and prices can be shocking, especially for the ink. Just realize, however, the time and personnel numbers saved and, also, these machines can be used as a business expense on tax returns.

We do need to understand how much progress has been made and just as we appreciate successes, we must also contemplate our failures.


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    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      Sounds like you had an interesting education in a rustic setting. I attended 1st grade at the same school in South Georgia where my Dad had been taught. In fact, I had the same teacher he did. The school room once housed all grades, but by the time I attended, they were divided into grade levels.

      The gelatin duplicator would be fascinating to see working. I clearly remember mimeograph machines and the first thing the students did with their copies was sniff them. They had a distinct, medicinal smell that was appealing.

    • wabash annie profile image

      wabash annie 4 years ago from Colorado Front Range

      It was certainly something to see ... appreciate your comments.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the useful information, wabashannie. It was interesting to read about the history of copiers. I'd love to see a gelatin duplicator in action!