More obsolete communications technology

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Following up on our discussion of faxes and pdfs ("Obsolete communications technology", 7/13/2020), an even older textual transmission method is featured in the punch line of today's Doonesbury:

I think that Boopsie is confusing mimeographs with another obsolete printing method, the spirit duplicator, or ditto machine.

The purple pages produced by ditto machines, along with the U.S. Mail, were the 1960s equivalent of, at least in the field of linguistics. I still have a few boxes of fading purple documents somewhere, though alas not the box from George Lakoff that saved my life in Vietnam (a story for another time…).



  1. Philip Taylor said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:15 am

    Are you certain that mimeography did not also produce purple copies, Mark ? I ask because I remember otherwise, and the following fragment accords with my beliefs :

    How does it work?
    Some mimeograph machines are manual, employing a hand crank (not unlike the crank you might find on certain makes and models of cars). Other mimeograph machines have a motor that uses electricity. Regardless, the copying process is similar across all devices. You insert a blank stencil into a typewriter and type the desired content. The stencil is then loaded onto a rotating drum; as it rotates, specially formulated purple ink is pushed through the typed areas of the stencil onto clean sheets of paper. With every rotation of the drum, another copy is made, each identical to the last. Unless the ink gets low. Or smudges. But all the copies are more or less identical, slightly damp, and purple, giving off a distinctive odo[u]r.

    [(myl) You might be right, though I recall mimeograph machines as producing copies with black ink, and dittos being purple. Anyhow both kinds of machines are obsolete antiques now…]

  2. Norman Smith said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:48 am

    My elementary school teacher used, in the late 50s and early 60s, a hectograph that produced purple copies. I remember that I very much disliked the way the copy felt, kind of a dry-slimy combination.

  3. Rodger C said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:50 am

    I'm with Mark: mimeographs black, hectographs purple. In 1972, I and everyone in Willis Barnstone's poetry translation class at IU had to make mimeographs of our work for everyone in the class to critique. From earlier, ca. 1966, I still own an undergraduate (Marshall) hectograph copy of the Ayer-Copleston debate, which I thought (and think) that Fr. Copleston won. I think, though, that they were both generally called "mimeos" at the time.

  4. Robert Coren said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:57 am

    Maybe this is considered a special case of "smudging", but another way that a mimeograph stencil would eventually deteriorate after multiple uses was the loss of material "inside" letters such as o and d, resulting in dark blotches where the insides of the letters should have been; actually my memory suggests that this phenomenon would show up earliest in a and e, probably because the enclosed space is smaller.

  5. Robert Collins said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 11:03 am

    When I began teaching high school in 1961, the spirit duplicator was a tool we used every day. One feature, which the students enjoyed, was that the text was transfered from the original by means of alcohol (whence the name spirit duplicator). The first thing they did upon receiving their quiz sheet was to take a sniff of the page.

  6. Bob Ladd said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 12:15 pm

    @ Robert Collins:
    Yes, indeed. I definitely remember sniffing purple mimeo (or whatever) sheets, even when I was in grad school and actually producing the things myself.

  7. Doreen said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 12:16 pm

    @Robert Collins
    Yes, I attended school in the 1970s and '80s and have fond memories of sniffing worksheets that were fresh off the ditto machine (and felt slightly cool and damp).
    That experience was captured in this scene from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
    Interestingly, the blurb on that YouTube page refers to a "mimeograph machine".

  8. mg said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 12:36 pm

    When I was in grad school in the mid-80s we still used mimeograph for the Psych 101 exam since the class was huge and photocopies were expensive. We TAs all loved the nostalgia evoked by the smell of fresh mimeos.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 12:56 pm

    Here's another youtube clip titled in part (by whoever posted it, not originally) "HOW TO USE A 1960s DITTO MACHINE MIMEOGRAPH ," which is further evidence that non-specialist Anglophones think/thought of "ditto" and "mimeograph" as rough synonyms rather than as distinct technologies producing similar results.

  10. Stephen Hart said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 1:08 pm

    "inside" letters such as o and d

    As a mimeograph is stencil based, couldn't any color ink be used?

  11. A Scott said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 2:08 pm

    In my first place of work, UK, mid 1970s, a Banda machine produced purple copies.
    I think I remember a handle that turned rollers?

  12. Bob Moore said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 3:54 pm

    What I recall is that any of the various duplication methods common in the pre-Xerox days were commonly referred to as "mimeograph", but the purple ones that were most common were actually "Ditto", the most common US brand of spirit duplicator.

  13. Tom Dawkes said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 4:24 pm

    There was also the Gestetner duplicator, which used a waxed stencil, and had rollers. I used one regularly in the 1980s, and remember having to use amy acetate correcting fluid to deal with errors in typing the stencils.

  14. djw said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 8:48 pm

    Here in central Texas, we got lots of dittos in elementary school. My first recollection of mimeograph was "junior high," when I was on the school newspaper staff, and we had to type our monthly publication onto the kind of waxed stencil Tom Dawkes describes, with that awful correction fluid. (When I first started teaching and had to type up dittos, we could make corrections by scraping the purple stuff off the back of the page and typing over the error.) I don't think I heard dittos called "mimeograph" until I was in college in the late '60s and early '70s, but I'm pretty sure I heard it some then. And yeah, I've used both hand cranked and motorized versions of both machines.

  15. Timothy Rowe said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 9:04 pm

    Meh. It's the 21st century. Are there any of us who *couldn't* change the purple to Teal?

  16. Haamu said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 10:44 pm

    I'd really like to hear the Lakoff story.

  17. Wally said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 11:35 pm

    In 4th grade so late 50’s some of us got to work on a class/school newsletter which was mimeographed and purple . Somewhere my dad came up with colored sheets so we could have multiple colors on each page which I thought was cool. I don’t remember seeing that any where else. I actually found copies of some of the newsletters a few years ago.

  18. eub said,

    July 19, 2020 @ 11:39 pm

    Other colors were available, but purple was the cheapest, I was told. It used aniline purple — the original Perkin's mauve from petrochemical byproduct — so this makes sense.

  19. Rick Rubenstein said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 12:45 am

    I have it on good authority that some elementary school teachers were still using (and repairing!) "ditto" machines into at least the early 2000's, for a reason that never would have occurred to me: you can ditto onto construction paper.

  20. Ralph Hickok said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 1:25 am

    There was also the hectograph, which was widely used by my grade school teachers, who only needed to make about 25 copies.

  21. Keith said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 3:25 am

    I remember receiving handouts in class in secondary school in the UK in the 1980s that were either typed or handwritten and then duplicated on what was variously named a "spirit duplicator", a "Roneo" or a "Gestetner".

    And as Robert and Bob already mentioned, there was a distinct and pleasant smell to the duplicated sheets.

  22. Anthea Fleming said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 5:19 am

    Memories of editing a small monthly magazine for local conservation society. Had to type everything carefully on the stencils, then carry them into City centre, where friendly organization kept a Gestetner. Put on overall. Fit first stencil onto machine. Check presence of ink. Print 80 copies – it was an electric machine and the sheets came whizzing out. Print remaining odd pages. Then with great care print page 2 on reverse of page 1 and run one copy through first to make sure it was right way up. Then print the other even pages with same precautions. Take them to the accountant person who checked the number of sheets for our bill. Wrap the whole lot in newspaper and carry the heavy parcel back on public transport. Oh the happy day when photo-copying became available!

  23. ffrancis said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 6:18 am

    Back in the late 60s – early 70s when I was first a student and then a teacher, I have two memories of these machines: in my student radical group, there was one member self-appointed in charge of the machine & there was a running joke that when we occupied a university office, he would lead the charge carrying the machine; and, they were known in my circle as "pocketa-pocketa" machines from the sound of copies being cranked out. This may, or may not, have been a very local usage.

  24. matt regan said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 2:52 pm

    "Pocketa-pocketa" is James Thurber, non?

  25. SlideSF said,

    July 20, 2020 @ 8:15 pm

    Going to high school in the late1960s/early 70s, we always called the purple ink copies mimeographs. But by that time the technology was gradually being replaced by xerography. Perhaps we were calling it by the generalized term mimeograph the same way all photo copies are still called Xerox copies today.

  26. Dave said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 3:04 am

    Hand cranked duplication in history:

  27. Robert Coren said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 9:38 am

    @matt regan: Yes, specifically the story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and then later incorporated into the 1965 comedy film How to Murder Your Wife, starring Jack Lemmon and Terry-Thomas, among others.

  28. Narmitaj said,

    July 21, 2020 @ 5:25 pm

    The people (including me) at Comics I Don't Understand were discussing this subject last year in the context of a different comic strip – this one using mimeograph as a marker of old age.

    The third comment is even on the same theme as the first one here: "Mimeograph usually used a thick black ink. What seems to be described here is more like a spirit copier, which frequently duplicated in purple."

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