Dated Reference Primer: The Mimeograph Machine

I link here to Laurie from Foolery a lot, not ’cause I’m stealing her ideas (I swear), but because I dig how she writes, and the stuff she writes about often strikes a familiar chord with me.

Case in point: She shared this story about a friend who, once upon a time, got her long hair all wrapped up in a mimeograph machine.

MIMEOGRAPH MACHINE? Yes, you heard me. And you know what’s coming, don’t you? One of my favorite recurring themes?

…wait for it…

WOOOPWOOOPWOOOP, DATED REFERENCE ALERT!

Children, grab a juice box, a carpet square, and gather ’round the rocking chair. Today I will tell you about something called the mimeograph machine. It looked like this

Mimeograph Machine
Mimeograph Machine

and it was what teachers used as recently as the late 1980s hundreds of years ago to duplicate worksheets and handouts for students.  They would make a master copy by typing onto a purple-waxy “master,” and by typing I mean that they rolled it into their typewriter and prayed as they struck each key that it was the right one, because if you messed up, there was no fixing it.

Then, you would peel the master apart and attach the “reverse” side of it to the round drum of the mimeo machine, turn it on, and THWAP THWAP THWAP the drum would fly around and around and, through some magic involving duplicator fluid, the words would transfer onto the paper. The pages would be cool and ever so slightly damp when they came out the other side, with purple ink.  They had a very distinct smell.

I myself learned to use a duplicating machine as part of a work-study job in an academic department in college. I got really good at it. It was kinda fun.

Unfortunately, kids, the mimeograph machine’s days were numbered as photocopiers became more reliable and less expensive.  Eventually, the mimeograph went the way of the punched card reader. (In fact, there was one of those in a seldom-used hallway in another academic building at my college. And this was the late 1980s!)

Nowadays, we duplicate and print documents with “photocopiers,” and in offices, they are usually “networked,” which means you can send documents straight from your computer to the copier!  I remember dreaming about this in 1990, and now it’s mostly taken for granted. We’ve come a long way, baby, with duplicating technology.

This concludes today’s Dated Reference Primer. Thanks for listening, kids. Come back next time, when we will discuss other technological relics that have been invented and made obsolete all within my lifetime: the “floppy disk” and the “thermal fax machine.”

13 thoughts on “Dated Reference Primer: The Mimeograph Machine

  1. I totally remember using one of these in elementry school – dated reference I am sure! As always, thanks for the laughs!

  2. I actually had to use a mimeograph machine as a teaching assistant in graduate school in the early 1990s. Yes, you read that right! Crazy nuts, I know. I still have some of the purple dittos in files of old notes. And as you described it, I can still smell that smell, remember that damp, and recall the frustration of trying to get that purple ink off my fingers! Thanks for the memories.

  3. Lori – my last use was in like 1988 in college, in the Education Department office.

    MommyTime – I suspect that the same department was still using it for at least a few years after I graduated!

  4. Meg, that mimeograph machine was still in heavy use in the education dept until at least 1992. I love the smell of freshly mimeographed pages! not to mention the cool purple ink.

  5. Ah, the old mimeograph machine. Right up there with the Wang word processor. The Smithsonian probably has a few on display, even though I used a Wang my first job out of college, so that would make me someone who used something that is so old it has to be displayed in a museum.

    Great.

  6. I used a Wang word processor during my college summer job at Hershey Foods. It was the model that used those giant, plate-sized floppy disks – the ones that came before 5 1/4″. You can’t out-old me, Cheaspeake!

  7. Just found your blog, LOVE IT!
    And you’re dead right. My mother was a teacher, and I remember helping lug stacks of purple paper from the teacher’s room up to her classroom in the late 80s/early 90s.
    She had a few Apple IIe computers in her classroom, at least once the school finally got into PCs.
    She was in a good sized district, too…. capital city of Ohio….

  8. How did I miss this? Okay, I drained my juice box, changed the roll on my thermal fax machine, and hung up my buggy whip. I’m ready for my story now. : )

  9. The sheets with purple printing were produced by ditto machines. These used a clear liquid (sort of like alcohol) to produce the copies from the carbon on the back of the paper masters.
    Mimeograph machines used wax stencils and usually black ink. The single-drum machines (A.B. Dick, etc) used liquid ink, while the dual-drum machines (Gestetner) used paste ink.

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