Wednesday, August 8, 2012

An Ink Smeared Remembrance of the Little Machine that Helped Launch a Revolution

I never stayed as neat or clean as this lady when I operated the IWW open drum Mimeograph.

When I was Secretary-Treasurer of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1970, we still used a 1908 hand cranked Mimeograph to produce a monthly General Organization Bulletin (GOB) mailed to rank and file members as well as other documents.  It had been bought by Big Bill Haywood himself and was seized with other office equipment when the Feds raided General Headquarters in September of 1917 and reluctantly returned to the union some years later.
I laboriously cut stencils on my old upright Underwood manual typewriter often leaving holes punched by the letter o and the number 0 resulting in fat black marks on the page where ever they occurred.  My many typos had to be repaired, with greater or lesser success by removing the stencil from the type writer, applying clear fingernail polish to the mistake, letting it dry, then  trying to put the stencil back in the typewriter and try to line it up so that the keys would strike on the same line. 
These were not attractive documents, but they did the job. I understood, however, how valuable, even revolutionary, a tool that old machine had been back when it was new and turning out strike calls and other urgent documents at a moment’s notice.  The radical movement, like churches, schools, and small businesses ran on that technology for decades.
On August 8, 1876 Thomas Alva Edison received U.S. Patent 180,857 for Autographic Printing.  To Edison’s mind the key component of his new process for cheaply duplicating documents was his electric pen, in which a battery powered reciprocating needle in a stylus made 50 punctures a second to stencil through which ink could pass when the stencil was mounted on the companion flatbed press with a roller.  The pen was used to free-hand write or draw an image on the stencil.  A little later templates for the stencils were developed so that an operator could trace letters.   
Copies were made on the press one at a time as clean paper was laid on the bed on top of the stencil, which was stretched on an inked surface.  As the roller pressed down the paper, ink was infused through the holes in the stencil to make the copy.  It was a dirty, laborious one page-at-a-time process. 
The limitations of the machine led Edison to make improvements.  By 1880 Edison applied for a new patent on a Method of Preparing Autographic Stencils for Printing, which covered the making of stencils using a grooved metal file plate on which the stencil was placed which perforated the stencil when written on with a blunt metal stylus.   This made it easier to use tracing stencils, but the printing process remained primitive. 
Yet it was that printing process that was at the heart of a soon to breakthrough new technology which got its name when the A.B. Dick Company licensed Edison’s patients and began making the machine—and making improvements—under the new trademark Mimeograph. 
By the early 20th Century technological innovations to the device itself, improvement of stencil material, and—most importantly—the discovery that another emerging office machine, the typewriter could be used to cut clear, clean, and readable documents, began to make the Mimeograph an essential piece of office equipment. 
In England David Gestetner and others were developing similar printing devices.  Gestenter, in 1890, first used a rotating drum instead of a flat bed to make impressions, greatly speeding the production of multiple copies. 
A.B. Dick soon introduced the hand cranked open drum Mimeograph.  Ink was applied to the interior of perforated metal rotating drum with brushes and as the crank was turned sheets of paper were pulled through the device and pressed between the drum, on which the stencil was stretched and the paper, with the printed page, was deposited in a receiving tray on the other end.  A skilled operator could make several “impressions” or copies a minute. 
Improved design made it possible for a stencil to be able to withstand the battering of the typewriter and produce dozens—and with extreme care—hundreds of impressions before it became unusable.  Thus an inexpensive alternative to metal type printing for short runs without the need for highly skilled labor was available in even small offices, school, churches, and factories. 
By the 1920’s there was a virtual explosion of small scale publishing.    
In the late ‘20’s new models were available powered by electricity instead of a hand crank and the process of inking the interior of the drum was improved to a more “hands off” system.  Some models mounted two drums to enable the use of a second color, or allowed for single drums to be quickly switched out. 
The use of the Mimeograph undoubtedly reached its peak during World War II.  The War Department alone deployed thousands of machines around Washington turning out every imaginable sort of document.  More were in Army, Corps, Division, even Regimental headquarters across the globe often churning out orders literally under fire from the front lines.  The machines were just as essential to the war’s industrial suppliers and aid and support groups like the USO and Red Cross. 
By the ‘50’s Mimeos were getting some competition from other technology.  Spirit Duplicators manufactured by Ditto produced cheaper copies for short runs.  Those of us of a certain age will remember the distinctive purple ink and the intoxicating—literally intoxicating—smell of fresh copies handed out by our teachers.  Publishers also sold professionally produced masters for the ubiquitous “hand outs” that made for a large part of our homework.  I know of no similar publishing support for Mimeograph stencils. 
But a typical Ditto master would only hold up for 100 impressions or so, so that even in schools, Mimeographed material was used for longer runs or multi-page documents. 
For longer runs, the competition was inexpensive small sheet-fed offset presses ideal for in-house use produced by Addressograph/Multilith and A. B. Dick itself.  Not only was the per impression cost less than a Mimeo after twenty or thirty copies, but plates could be preserved and re-used, photos and other graphics reproduced cleanly, and additions of second or third colors was easier. 
If a company or organization was too small to have an in-house print shop, a whole industry of fast print storefronts soon emerged to provide quick, cheap and reliable service.  I was trained as a Multilith and A.B. Dick press operator and worked for a few years in what I regarded as cutting edge field. 
But, of course the photocopier, pioneered by Xerox, doomed both the Mimeograph and the small offset press.  Early Xerox machines were the size of Buicks and copies were so expensive that companies assigned Key Operators to severely ration their use.  But size shrank, competition with other companies drastically cut costs, and technology improved to the point that many home offices now have combination scanner/copier/printers costing a couple of hundred dollars.  Even with the outrageous cost of inks and toners, copies cost just pennies. 
Folks under 40 have probably never seen a Mimeograph machine, or a document printed on one.  The name, still registered to the A.B. Dick Company, is officially listed by the patent office as a “dead entry.” 
Gestetner  other companies still makes and markets machine operating on the same basic principles called digital duplicators which contain a scanner, a thermal head for stencil cutting, and a large roll of stencil material entirely inside the unit. They make the stencils and mount and un-mount them from the print drum automatically, making them almost as easy to operate as a photocopier.  They are mostly used in schools, but are generally being replaced with copiers as they end their useful lives.

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