There is nothing new under the sun…turn, turn, turn

The Color Purple, the school edition (ditto)

Since I’ve been talking about the printed word recently, I might as well add another gem.

Recently I had to print a school assignment for a young cousin of mine. This involved going to her school’s website on my computer, downloading a file, and (because it was an odd paper size that I didn’t have at home) sending the print job to a local print shop chain.

Needless to say, I couldn’t do that for my assignments when I was her age. I had to be physically present in school to receive the assignment.

And, more than likely, the assignment was purple.

You see, most elementary schools in the 1960s and early 1970s did not have access to photocopiers, so they used one of two competing technologies. One of those technologies, the ditto machine, produced the purple assignment papers. Harmon Jolley remembers:

[T]he ditto machine used no ink. The user typed, wrote, or drew on a ditto master sheet which was backed by a second sheet of paper coated with a dye-impregnated, waxy substance. The inscribed image appeared on the back of the ditto sheet in reverse. The ditto machine used an alcohol-based fluid to dissolve some of the dye in the document, and transferred the image to the copy paper.

Though other colors of ditto sheets were available, purple was commonly used. In elementary school, I remember that the teacher would distribute drawing sheets for us to color. The sheets had been through the ditto machine, which gave purple outlines to the drawings of fruit, animals (mostly lions and tigers and bears), letters, numbers, and everything else that we were asked to stay within the lines while we colored.

The output of the ditto machine had a special aroma. Students could tell when a class assignment was hot out of the machine by the strength of the odor of the pages. The smell came from the ditto machine’s duplicating fluid, a mix of methanol and isopropanol.

Ditto machines have long since gone out of style, although they may still be used somewhere. Jolley notes that (as of 2006) you could still get ditto and mimeograph machine supplies from Presstek. I was unable to locate either item on Presstek’s site today, however.

Probably just as well. Eric Zorn reminds us that you could get high on the stuff. But Zorn does note that the cost of ditto duplicating was very low – around a quarter of a penny. Perhaps it would be higher if ditto machines were still common today, but it appears that it would still be much cheaper than the photocopying processes commonly in use. (I recently ran up a bill of about $800 printing some emergency documents at a copying center. No, it wasn’t for my young cousin.)

No wonder people have been clamoring for the paperless office.

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