Many, if not most of us, know the story of Thomas Edison: brilliant American who, through a combination of hard work and ingenuity, either invented or improved upon a plethora of inventions – so many so, in fact, that Edison has nearly 2000 American patents to his name. Some of these inventions changed the world and became commonplace, such as the light bulb, electric meter (after all, he had to figure out a way to charge customers who wanted to use the electricity he planned on installing), phonograph, microphone and movie camera. Others are a little more obscure, like concrete houses and furniture, a method for trapping ghosts, and (apparently this would be needed when they were caught), a phone to speak with the spirit world.
As much fun as it would be if the spirit phone worked, today we will look at a little more practical Edison invention, the mimeograph (patent #180857, which was approved on August 8, 1876). For those who don’t remember, the mimeograph was a type of copier in which a person would hand crank the roller apparatus. Meanwhile paper would pass through while ink was being forced through a stencil onto the page. If that doesn’t ring a bell, perhaps the bluish-purple ink on the pages (perhaps even with a smear or blur to it) with the distinctive smell does, especially if you went to school before the widespread use of copiers and printers. Regardless, the mimeograph was a huge improvement over any copy methods that were conceived of prior to this, especially since copying was often done by hand.
Now, with the aforementioned copiers and printers, mimeographs would seem to be something that the world has passed by. After all, who has the time to stand there and turn that drum so that it can print out 20, 100 or 500 different copies?
Turns out some people do, and there is still a demand for mimeograph machines. “Why?”, you might ask. For some, there is a practical reason. Turns out not everybody has access to the technology that we have become used to in our everyday lives. If electricity is in short supply, a hand-cranked mimeograph is a fast, simple, and relatively inexpensive solution to the problem of how to make large amounts of copies. For others, it’s more for nostalgic reasons. In fact, there is even a Facebook page dedicated to the invention (Mimeograph Users Group). Now, I must admit that I am not quite that excited about the mimeograph – maybe there’s some latent memories of a test I failed or blue smudges on my clothes – but it is interesting to think about the many important documents that reproduced with the mimeograph, as the era of “Xeroxing” didn’t begin until the 1960s, and even then mimeographs continued for decades longer.
One final note must be addressed here, and that is that some (many?) dispute Edison’s actual importance in regard to the mimeograph, despite his patent for it. For some, Albert Blake Dick deserves the credit. Dick took the basic Edison technology (with his approval) and turned it into the practical invention that would become known as the mimeograph (in fact, Dick was the one who came up with the word “mimeograph”) that would rule the copying world for the first half of the 20th century. While you may not have heard of Albert Blake Dick, perhaps the company that he founded rings a bell: A. B. Dick. In fact, A. B. Dick is still around today and still a part of the world of copies and printing.