Boomers Lived Without Copy Machines

It’s not hard for young people today to associate the Boomer Generation with the era of the video tape player (even though the technology didn’t catch on until the 1970s). It seems much harder for newer generations to fathom that boomers lived in a time when simple copy machines as we know them today did not exist in schools and offices.

Boomers recall getting tests, assignments and info sheets in school where the type or lines were a purple tone. These copies were made by Ditto or Mimeograph machines, which were both stencil-based copying devices. The duplicated papers often had a distinct smell to them, which some boomers sniffed in the same way they did Magic Markers, thinking it might provide a quick high. Mister Boomer hated the smell and saw no point in purposely sniffing them.

The electrostatic copy machine that was the forerunner of today’s ubiquitous copy machines was introduced by the Xerox Corporation in 1959. The path to the invention and release of this device, dubbed the Xerox 914 because it could copy on plain paper up to 9 x 14 inches, was a long and varied one.

In a nutshell, in our country’s first century, if a law office, business, university or school wanted a copy of a document, it was copied by hand. People, most often men, were employed for this purpose. They were called copyists, scribes or scriveners. One such copyist who is identifiable to the Boomer Generation was the character Bob Cratchit from the Dickens book, and subsequent movie of, A Christmas Carol.

In the early 1800s, carbon paper was patented. Its evolution progressed from the early days of hand-written letters to the first typewriters of the late 1800s. Rudimentary copying presses were used up until then, but by early 1900s, they had all but disappeared from American offices. By the 1920s and ’30s, carbon paper was the standard method used for copying business letters and invoices. Yet carbon paper was messy and it was difficult to make more than one copy at a time. Worries about the quality of the copies, and possible forgery of carbon-copied documents, caused them to be ruled as inadmissible in court. Most boomers recall using carbon paper in school or college, and in their first office jobs, as its use continued through the 1970s.

Xerox changed the copying landscape with the release of the Xerox 914 in 1959. It was the first commercially successful copying device to employ an electrostatic method of copying an image from a document to a metal drum, where dry powder would stick to the charged particles and transfer to plain paper.

It was 1960, so of course a major U.S. corporation would introduce their product with a stereotypical and sexist commercial.

The effect of the Xerox 914 on American life was immediate as use of the device spread through businesses to universities and schools. By 1963, Xerox introduced desktop models and the rush was on for every American company to own a machine. In the mid-60s, some police stations began using the machines to copy the pocket contents of arrested individuals, replacing the need to make written lists of the contents on their person at the time of arrest. Xerox all but suggested such behavior in commercials where a young girl made a copy of her rag doll.

Very quickly, workers began complaining about information overload. Where once office documents were circulated via routing envelopes, where each reader of the document would sign off on reading it and pass it on to the next person needing that information, now copies could be given to everyone at once. Workers complained in articles of the time that their desks became piled with copies that would never be read. Mister Boomer was fascinated to discover this info, as it appears to be the direct forerunner to today’s “Reply All” in office e-mail.

Much like Kleenex became the word for facial tissue years earlier, Xerox became the word for copies. Workers began to see all sorts of personal uses for the copying machines. They could copy tax documents and personal papers, but quickly began circulating office-related satires and comments, off-color jokes and sexually-explicit material. It seemed inevitable that someone was going to drop their drawers, climb on the scanner and hit the print button to produce the first copier butt scans. By the late ’60s, most people had access to a copy machine, either at an office, in a library or at copy stores that began cropping up. The Anti-War Movement of the ’60s was given a boost by the quick, easy and cheap copying of documents.

The copy machine played a central role in one historical Boomer-Era event involving the Pentagon Papers. This report, issued in 1967, chronicled U.S. involvement in Vietnam from 1945 up to that time — including some instances that were not revealed honestly to the public. In 1971, Daniel Ellsberg, a military analyst, copied portions of the nearly 7,000 pages, smuggled them out of his office over time, and leaked them to The New York Times and other newspapers. Charged with violating the Espionage Act of 1917, Ellsberg was jailed. Ultimately, he was freed from prison in 1973 after charges were dismissed due to government misconduct and illegal evidence gathering.

The copy machine continues to be a part of our daily lives, though electronic copies are becoming more plentiful. Even the Pentagon Papers are now available for online download.

Mister Boomer’s biggest use of copy machines happened during and after his college days in the 1970s and into the ’80s. It was a time when the copy machine could be used by artists and writers to distribute their work easily and cheaply.

What memories of sniffing school papers and early Xerox copies do you have boomers?