Heavy Metal Madness: Making Copies from Carbon to Kinkos

During a recent session teaching one of my young nephews about email, he asked me what “cc” means. I’m not sure what’s more pathetic — the fact that I remember using carbon paper to make copies, or that I was able to quickly put my hand on several boxes of the stuff, the fruits of garage sale purchases over the years. I’ve heard young people refer to “cc” as “courtesy copy,” but of course it’s the abbreviation for “carbon copy,” another example of an analog printing term carried over to the digital age.

Until the laser-printer era, when the lines between printing and copying began to blur significantly, documents fell into two distinct categories. There were those works that were important enough to invest the time and effort into composing type, building a page, and printing multiple copies, and the vast majority of documents that served a short-term or limited purpose and did not merit full printing treatment. We’ve been able to produce the former for several centuries, but the later proved a pesky and difficult challenge if you needed more than one copy. The quest for a simple and effective way to make a few copies of something was a long one, and in many ways the much more interesting story of modern printing technology.

Gutenberg’s solution to producing multiple copies of documents is only half the story of printing. Until a solution was found in recent times for making copies of existing documents, the bulk of pages were still produced by hand.

Carbon paper was first used in the early 1800s to make multiple copies of a document while it was being created. Once the typewriter became a standard office fixture, carbon copies were the most widespread technology for creating duplicates. Carbon copies, however, required forethought, and as anyone who made them knows, typing mistakes had brutal consequences. Even though the stuff was fun to play with as a kid, carbon paper could bring adult office workers to their knees.

A Field Ripe with Invention
The quest for ways to make copies produced all kinds of interesting contraptions, from high-pressure copy presses that literally squeezed the ink out of a document to create a ghosted duplicate, to the polygraph, a device that Thomas Jefferson used when writing out documents. In that machine a writing pen was attached to an elaborate mechanism that controlled a second pen, which in theory duplicated the writer’s movements on a second sheet of paper. No one, it seemed, wanted to do anything twice, and the job of office copying clerk was considered a poor one-spending the day at a desk re-writing documents. Talk about repetitive stress injuries!

One of my favorite technologies that lasted into my own lifetime was the mimeograph machine, invented originally by Thomas Edison and his partner Charles Batchelor. The “mimeo,” as it became known, is really more of short-run printing press than a copier, but it served the same purpose copiers tend to serve today. Using an electric pen, typewriter, or any number of other methods, a crude stencil was created as the original page and placed on a simple desktop rotary press. Ink was squeezed through the tiny holes that represented the type, and up to a hundred or so copies could be made quickly by, say, a teacher wanting to spring a pop quiz on students.

Thomas Edison’s Mimeograph Machine was licensed by the A.B. Dick Company and sold through the 1970s as a low-cost, easy way to make multiple copies of simple documents. The reproduction quality was pretty poor by today’s standards.

Mimeograph duplicators became standard office equipment in the 1940s (when this ad from A. B. Dick appeared in Fortune Magazine), and were popular anywhere runs of 25 to several hundred copies were needed. The photo on the bottom is from Navy archives and shows someone making mimeographic copies during World War II.

Other forms of stencil copying were developed by Gestetner, Roneograph, and other companies. The process, considerably updated, is still used today in products from Riso, which calls its process Risography. But until these companies discovered a way to make stencils from existing documents, this process also required forethought, and the documents had to be created with copies in mind-still not a true “copier” as needed by the world.

The form of copies many of us remember from our childhood were from another popular process often referred to as “spirit duplicating.” Based on a principal that showed up in many forms (hektography being the most common term) throughout the last several decades, these machines used a reaction between ink and either a volatile fluid or a gelatin substance to create a limited number of copies from a “master” that held all of the ink for the run — there was no replaceable ink supply. The most popular brand, which became a generic term for these sorts of copies, was Ditto (see Fig. 5).

The Ditto machine was a staple in schools around the world. Typing or drawing was done on a two-part “master,” which was then attached to a simple drum. The mostly purple ink from the master was transferred to the paper by a volatile chemical such as spirit ether.

The best part of dittos was the smell, given off by the “spirits” used in the process. Any school child of the 1960s can tell you stories of sniffing the purple copies distributed by teacher in an effort to get a small (and mostly mythical) high. As the technology progressed, various color masters were developed, and surprisingly good publications could be made by enterprising students. Runs were limited in this process to about 100, and each copy became progressively lighter as the ink supply was exhausted.

The Birth of “Real” Copies
Despite lots of great names, like the Trypograph, the Cyclostyle, the Papyrograph, the Stygmograph, and the Mimeoscope, most of the devices invented in the 18th and 19th centuries were really crude printing presses and couldn’t make copies of existing documents. This was still the Holy Grail until the invention of photography opened the door to processes that made realistic copies possible. As soon as it was technically viable to do so, companies like Kodak and the Rectigraph Company built what were essentially large flat-bed cameras that could make photographic copies of documents, building plans, maps, and other valuable printed materials.

The Rectigraph (shown here in ads from 1943) was one of the more popular machines in the early half of the last century that could photograph documents to make accurate copies. The photographic process, while technically pretty good, was obviously difficult and costly-not the push-button solution to copying that we needed. The Haloid company, sellers of the Rectigraph, would soon expand from their photographic roots to become the Xerox Corporation.

In the 1940s and 1950s, several viable processes using either heat (thermography) or light (reflectography) were marketed by a number of firms, most notably Kodak and 3M. These small, desktop machines could make decent copies of high-contrast originals, but they required specially treated papers that were not only expensive per copy, but had poor stability and often curled and deteriorated quickly.

In this ad from 1941, Kodak promotes its Verifax copy machine, which used bright light to create a photographic copy through reflection off the original. These copies were not very stable and were often brown in tint.

There were numerous brands of photo copiers using specially treated paper, as shown in these ads for A-Pe-Co (1943), Duophoto (1945), Ozalid (1961), and 3M (1960). All of these methods were expensive per copy, but were popular because the machines themselves were relatively cheap and small. However, for more than a copy or two, they were terribly impractical, and the copies often smelled bad and deteriorated quickly.

The Man with a Mission
The real breakthrough in copying technology is also a great American success story. And that’s the story of Chester Carlson (see Fig. 9), an ambitious inventor who set out specifically to discover something great and persisted despite a number of setbacks. Carlson’s story is classic rags-to-riches, and it’s particularly appealing because he appears to have been a nice, humble guy who gave away much of his money before he died in 1968 at the age of 62.

Inventor of the electrophotography copying methods later dubbed “Xerography,” Chester Carlson (above) is shown with his first apparatus. Below is the very first copy made by Carlson and his lab helper Otto Kornei in 1938, a hand-written message documenting the date and location. That original is currently in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C.

Carlson set out to invent things because he saw it as a good way to make lots of money. He was a scientist, for sure, having put himself through Cal Tech in Pasadena after a difficult childhood that included the death of his mother and dire poverty. But he had no special training in the scientific principals that would lead to his inventions (which also included a trick paper clip, a rotating billboard, and a machine for cleaning shoes). At the age of 15, Chester started keeping a notebook of ideas, a practice he maintained throughout his life. As a teen he worked briefly at a print shop and took a stab at producing his own magazine called the Amateur Chemists’ Press. Later he would reflect on his frustration at the elaborate efforts required to create a printed page.

As a young man during the Depression, Carlson was employed in a patent office where he grew discouraged by the lack of an easy way to make copies of patents on file. Repeated trips to the New York Public Library for research lead him to conclude that current copier companies were on the wrong track pursuing conventional photography methods as the solution for copying. Instead, Carlson latched on to the relatively little-known path of using photoelectricty and photoconductivity. These complicated theories stated that light can be used to create electrical conductivity.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about Carlson’s work — there are lots of books and articles to read if you really want to understand “electrophotography,” as he termed it. What’s interesting is that Carlson was able to project past the obvious shortcomings of the process to see the potential practical uses of his invention. After producing his first results in 1938, Carlson took his ideas (which he had carefully patented) to companies such as I.B.M., RCA, and Kodak, and all concluded the process was not viable.

The front page of Chester Carlson’s patent describing “electrophotography,” which was issued by the U.S. Patent Office in 1942.

Through what can be described only as serendipitous chance, Carlson’s work came to the attention of a relatively small company in Rochester, New York, called Haloid. They sold photographic paper and reproduction camera equipment. Haloid executives were looking for a way to get out from the shadow of Eastman Kodak, the much-larger neighbor in Rochester that dominated the photographic market. Eventually Haloid bet everything on Carlson’s process, and over a period of ten years developed a series of machines that, while crude, demonstrated that the process worked.

Haloid and its partners did not think that the term “electrophotography” was a marketable one, so they hired a professor of classical language at Ohio State University to come up with a better term. He proposed that the Greek words for “dry” and “writing” should be combined to form the term “xerography.” Haloid originally marketed the new XeroX machines under their own brand, but when success started to come, they decided to change the company name simply to XeroX.

A 1958 ad promoting the Haloid XeroX Company. At this time, the offerings of Haloid XeroX were limited, and the machines had not yet caught on.

The original Haloid factory in Rochester, New York, and the first logo under the XeroX brand (which had a capital X on both ends for a long time).

It took the Xerox 914 copier released in 1959 to revolutionize the office. This model combined all the best efforts of Carlson’s and Haloid’s work and was an instant success. By the end of 1962, over 10,000 of these machine had been sold. In 1959, Haloid’s net income was $2 million. Four years later it was $22.6 million, all thanks to the 914. Finally, push-button copies were possible on plain paper. The 914 designation came from the fact that the maximum copy size of the machine was 9 by 14 inches.

The Xerox 914 (below) as advertised in 1961. Xerox advertising later became famous for the character Brother Dominic (above) who appeared in ads throughout the Seventies.

Xerox went on to develop even more capable machines, and Carlson enjoyed the fruits of his inventiveness. Eventually other companies entered the market, but had it not been for Carlson’s persistence, we would not have such capable copiers and laser printers today.

We have a lot to thank Chester Carlson for. He helped close the gap between commercial printing and low-volume copying, and while it may not be considered progress, we have reached the point where (according to one statistic I drummed up) there are 50 copies made each year for every human being on earth.

There is one distinction I think Carlson should also enjoy, but is not specifically attributable to him by record. The Xerox 914 not only popularized low-cost copying in the office, but it was the machine that introduced an entire generation to the paper jam. Now that’s an invention worth noting!

Read more by Gene Gable.

Posted on: June 15, 2005

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.

2 Comments on Heavy Metal Madness: Making Copies from Carbon to Kinkos

  1. Again, history, graphics, humor brought together in entertaining, perceptive Gable style!

  2. Uma Maheswar Nakka

    March 6, 2014 at 7:45 pm


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