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Throughout most of the nineteenth century, businesses relied on written correspondence and records, and the necessary copying of such documents was performed by employees using pen and ink.  The important, commonplace role of copyists or scriveners in the business world was immortalized in nineteenth-century literature by Charles Dickens’s Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol (1843) and by Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener (1853).

Mechanical copying originated in 1780 when James Watt, the inventor of the steam engine, received a patent for a press to duplicate written documents.  However, few businesses used the letterpress before the 1840s.  In the process, a damp tissue paper was placed between an oiled paper and the written document, which were then pressed together between two plates by turning a screw or lever.  It was a cumbersome procedure and the tissue copy had to be held up to the light to read.

The creation of a synthetic aniline dye (of purple tint) opened the way for the invention of another copying device in the mid-1870s, the Hektograph (or Hectograph).  Promotional text in the June 26, 1880 issue of Harper’s Weekly announced, “One of the most useful and valuable patents ever issued … has just been granted to the Hektograph Company.”  The master copy was written, typed, or drawn with the aniline dye, pressed face down onto a tray containing a firm gelatin pad.  After a few minutes, the original was removed and blank sheets of paper were pressed one at a time by a roller onto the gelatin surface, which had absorbed the ink and kept it moist.  Manufacturers claimed the process made about a 100 copies (“hecto” means hundred), but it was reported to have produced only about 50, with each copy lighter than the previous as more ink was removed from the gelatin.  An advertisement in the February 28, 1880 issue described the Hektograph as a “New Process of Dry Copying” to contrast it with letterpresses, which had to be kept moist with water.  Lawton and Company of New York produced a rival copier called the Simplex Printer.  An ad for it in the January 7, 1893 issue illustrated the roller-press procedure.

The first known use of carbon paper was in 1806, but it was messy and seldom used until the introduction in the 1870s of both a greaseless carbon paper and the typewriter.  In 1874, Eugenio de Zuccato received an American patent for a stencil copying process.  Corrosive ink was used on a stencil, which was then placed between an inkpad and a sheet of paper inside a copy press.  In 1876, Thomas Edison received a patent for an electric pen that cut holes in a stencil.  Edison’s Electric Pen and rival models sold well through the late 1870s, but the battery powering the device was complicated to use and sales began declining in 1880 with competition from the Hektograph and the Cyclostyle.  The latter, patented in 1881 by David Gestetner, was a pen with a tiny steel-toothed wheel, which required no battery and made superior stencils to the electric pen.  A small text ad for the Cyclostyle in the June 20, 1885 Harper’s Weekly promised “2000 copies in Black Ink of any writing.”

In 1884, Albert Blake Dick developed a copying system using a stylus on a stencil.  Like the Cyclostyle, the etched stencil was put in a wooden box to which an ink roller was applied.  Dick called his apparatus a Mimeograph and convinced Edison to manufacture and market it beginning in 1887.  About that time, stencils for typewriters were introduced, and in 1894 the A. B. Dick Company started marketing the Edison Mimeograph Typewriter.  The early-twentieth century saw the invention of rotary stencil machines by which turning a crank rotated a drum on which a stencil was placed, producing multiple copies per minute.  The two largest manufacturers of rotary stencil machines were A. B. Dick and Gestetner’s Cyclostyle Company.  An ad for A. B. Dick’s Rotary Mimeograph in the October 28, 1905 Harper’s Weekly showed the machine and emphasized its efficiency.  These and other copying methods, however, could not duplicate incoming documents.  That problem was solved after Chester Carlson’s invention in 1938 of the photocopier, which Haloid (renamed Xerox in 1961) first marketed in 1949.

Harper's Weekly References

1) June 26, 1880, p. 414, col. 2
ad, Hektograph copier

2) February 28, 1880, p. 142, col. 3-4
ad, Hektograph copier 

3) January 7, 1893, p. 24, col. 3
Illustrated ad, Simplex Printer

4) June 20, 1885, p. 398, col. 1
ad, Cyclostyle copying process

5) October 28, 1905, p. 1570, col. 1
illustrated ad, Rotary Mimeograph

Sources Consulted

“Antique Copying Machines.”  Office

Laurence, Kevin.  “The Exciting History of Carbon Paper!”

McChristy, Neal.  “The Photocopier.”  Yesterday’s Office.

Rehr, Darryl, “Early Desktop Publishing.”  Dead

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