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Mimeograph Machines

1960's mimeograph machineThe Xerox copier made its debut in 1959, with the 914 model. It was a technological marvel that would scan a document, then spit out a nearly flawless copy.

It was also very expensive, and school budgets being what they were (and still are), that meant that teachers who wanted duplicate test papers or any other types of duplicated handouts needed to be adept at running something called a mimeograph machine. Generally, there would be one to share among several teachers.

I make lots of typos as I write these columns. I recognize most of them because Firefox underlines suspected goofs in red. All I have to do is right-click on the questioned word and I am offered suggested fixes, one of which is usually correct.

But teachers in the 60's had to be PERFECT typists. That's because there was no room for error, the first step in creating a mimeograph was to insert a waxed stencil into the typewriter, set it to punch letters directly onto the stencil, bypassing the ribbon, and DON'T make a mistake! If the teacher was writing up exams or graduation announcements the stencil could not be corrected. The expensive sheets had to be used very carefully so that the exams or announcements would be perfect on the first attempt.

Once the test was painstakingly typed out, the sheet was attached to a drum inside a hand-cranked mimeograph machine. Each turn of the crank drew a sheet of paper inside, where it was pressed against the stencil and ink would be printed matching the punched letters. The result was a duplicate of the original, albeit with extra lines caused by wrinkles and such on the stencil.

One of the delightful smells we enjoyed in the schoolroom was fresh mimeograph ink. I remember being handed a freshly printed test on a piece of paper that was slightly damp that smelled heavenly.

Mimeographed pageIf you ever smelled a mimeographed page, you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't, the smell, slightly chemical, is difficult to describe. But it delighted the entire class to receive the fragrant sheets.

Teachers, on the other hand, weren't so crazy about the devices that produced them. Mimeograph machines were prone to various malfunctions. You could get ink on your hands or clothing. A rookie might put the stencil on the drum backwards, making a perfect copy of a test printed in mirror image. And the stencil could simply wear out, making the last tests unreadable.

But mimeograph machines were a part of our growing up, and if you could ever get your hands on one of those freshly printed sheets and smell its reassuring aroma, you would instantly be transported back to being eight years old again.

 

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