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Dead medium: Spirit Duplicators
From: (David Morton)

Source(s): M P Doss, Information Processing Equipment (New York, 1955) Irvin A. Herrmann, Manual of Office Reproduction (New York, 1956) W B Proudfoot, The Origin of Stencil Duplicating (London, 1972)

Fellow necronauts and necrolurkers, this strikes me as an appropriate subject for our ongoing inquiries into dead media: a certain kind of obsolete printing device called-- get this-- a "spirit duplicator." What could be better suited to this discussion?

On top of that, it's almost Halloween, and I imagine the ghosts of the dead (media) are in everybody's dreams.

The Difference between Mimeograph, Hectograph, and Spirit Duplication

The item being discussed here is that familiar, purple- inked, smelly technology we all knew in school way back when. This is called a "spirit duplicator," and not a mimeograph, although mimeograph was the generic term for several distinct devices.

The word mimeograph was coined by the A B Dick Company, which in the 1887 began manufacturing a stencil-based print duplication system. As W B Proudfoot has shown, the mimeograph was the culmination of a number of inventions, some of which came from A B Dick and some from elsewhere. After purchasing the rights to a process of making stencils invented by Thomas A. Edison, the A B Dick company began selling mimeograph copying equipment under the trade name "Edison's Mimeograph." The device made copies of hand-drawn stencils one at a time on a "flat bed" duplicator. By the time Dick began selling the device in 1887, the Gestetner company in England was already selling a similar machine called the cyclostyle, but mimeograph became the generic term. The mimeograph printing process used ordinary ink (either water soluble or oil soluble), and could even be used to make multi-color prints. The ink flowed through the perforations in the stencil and onto ordinary paper. Stencils could be prepared by hand or, later, on a typewriter. (Proudfoot 1972, p. 76) Eventually, mimeograph machines used a crank mechanism or an electric motor to speed up the process (as did the hectograph and spirit duplicator devices discussed below). They all look similar, but are quite distinct.

The Hectographic or "gelatin" duplicator, according to one source, "originally applied to a process which involved transferring the material to be copied from a sheet upon which it had been written with a special ink to a pad made from a mixture of gelatin, glycerin, and sometimes glue."(Doss, 1955, p. 15) The technology probably appeared in the 1870s, shortly after aniline dyes were developed in Germany. (Proudfoot, 1972, 36). Copies were made by pressing paper against the inked gelatin surface." The special dye for making the master copy came in the form of ink or in pens, pencils, carbon paper, and typewriter ribbon. The gelatin process was useful for print runs of up to fifty copies. At least eight different colors were available, but purple was the most common "because of its density and contrast."

The Spirit Duplicator

Finally we get to the spirit duplicator.

It was invented in 1923 by one Wilhelm Ritzerfeld, founder of the Ormig Company in Germany (Proudfoot 1972, 36). The spirit duplicator master consisted of a smooth paper master sheet and a "carbon" paper sheet (coated with a waxy compound similar to that used in the hectograph) acting "backwards" so that the wax compound (we'll call it the "ink") was transferred to the back side of the master sheet itself. The master could be typed or written on, and when finished the "carbon paper" was discarded. The master was wrapped around a drum in the spirit duplicator machine. As the drum turned, the master was coated with a thin layer of highly volatile duplicating fluid via a wick soaked in the fluid. The fluid acted to slightly dissolve or soften the "ink." As paper (preferably very smooth or coated) pressed against the drum and master copy, some of the "ink" was transferred to make the final copy. A spirit duplicator master was capable of making up to about 500 copies before the print became too faint to recognize.

The spirit duplicator was widely used in educational institutions for making all sorts of documents in small runs. Many students believed that inhaling the distinctive vapors given off by fresh spirit duplicator copies could provide a "high," a myth that (in my recollection) teachers did nothing to dispel.

One 1956 guide (Hermann, 1956, p. 208) lists several suppliers of spirit duplicators: Block, Anderson Ltd., Bohn Duplicator Corp., Copy-Craft, Inc., A B Dick Co., Ditto, Inc., S.p.A. Duplicatori ed Affini, Heyer Corp., Old Town Corp., Rex-O-Graph, Inc., S&M Distributing Co., Standard Duplicating Machines Corp., and Weber Marking Systems.


M P Doss, Information Processing Equipment (New York, 1955) Irvin A. Herrmann, Manual of Office Reproduction (New York, 1956) W B Proudfoot, The Origin of Stencil Duplicating (London, 1972)


Having spent my entire adult life around universities, I know how these institutions are often the last to hang on to their dead media technologies. Everyone I know has a story about using punched card readers as late as the 1980s, or knows somebody still using a manual typewriter. Well, about a month ago one department finally cleared out the last of its pre-Xerox copying machines, plus some old printing equipment. In November, 1998, on a routine visit to the Rutgers University surplus store, I noticed a trove of dead print media-- a small and very used offset lithograph printing press (way too big for my apartment, unfortunately) a pallet full of very filthy electric mimeograph machines, and a solitary Heyer spirit duplicator. I speculate that this vintage early-1960s machine shows so little wear and tear because it is hand cranked rather than electric. College professors are not known for their willingness to do manual work, right?

Ten bucks and it was mine. I picked up a couple of books on office equipment (I highly recommend these for discovering the details of how all sorts of obscure office technologies actually work) and learned about spirit duplication. Ah, memories of my youth flooded my mind like a "ditto" induced high. The only problem was where to get the supplies.

To operate the beast, one needs a goodly quantity of "spirit duplicating fluid" and a few "master units," the latter being the blank forms on which master copies are made. I did not even bother calling Staples or Office Depot on this one.

One of the few benefits of living in New Jersey is the close proximity to so many of the crumbling bastions of industrial age manufacturing. In this case, the Repeat-O-Type Manufacturing Corporation in Wayne New Jersey, near Newark indicated that they had plenty of supplies in stock. Off I went to buy the stuff. The company itself is something of a dead media exhibit. Located in an early 20th century building, these people have apparently been there forever. Piled in one corner are remnants of the early days of the personal computer--stacks of yellowed IBM PCs. Getting dusty but apparently still in use is an Osborne "portable." Peeking out from behind stacks of new toner cartridges and copier supplies are -- get this -- boxes and boxes of carbon paper, typewriter ribbons, correction fluid, and other reminders of an era now gone. Although my spirit duplicator supplies were close at hand, it had been so long since they sold any that the sales rep had trouble figuring out what to charge me. Did I hear snickering as I left the building?

Back at my office, I find to my great dismay that--in the tradition of Coca Cola-- some evil capitalist has changed the formula of my beloved duplicating fluid, which is now quite odorless. Nonetheless, whiffing up a nose full of this stuff is quite painful and not recommended. "Contains methanol" it says. "If ingested, induce vomiting with a finger or the back of a spoon carefully inserted down the back of the throat" it says.

Now for the demonstration. My plan to reproduce this semester's mid-term examination (for a history of technology class) on the "ditto" machine was almost thwarted by a last- minute realization that my office no longer has a typewriter. Was I willing to write out the whole master copy by hand? It had to be done. I created the master, attached it to the drum, filled the reservoir with fluid, filled the machine with copier paper, and turned the crank. Nothing.

Unlike a Xerox copier, the spirit duplicator has about half a dozen adjustments to make before good copies will come out. The magnitude of feed tension, the pressure against the drum, the flow of fluid to the wick, and miscellaneous other things all have to be fiddled with. Finally, after much cursing, out they came: shiny, wet sheets covered with purple writing. Suddenly, it was 1975 again.

I was not able to get these into my students hands quickly enough for them to try to achieve that mystical "mimeograph high," but even if I had, it would have been a wasted