Albert Blake Dick: 1856 – 1934

An illustration of Albert Blake Dick with a rotary mimeograph machine

An illustration of Albert Blake Dick with a rotary mimeograph machine

When I was in elementary school in the 1960s and into the early 1970s, teachers gave homework and classroom assignments, quizzes and tests on Ditto worksheets. We wrote on them so often that my classmates and I became intimately familiar with the aniline purple color of the Ditto—as well as the mesmerizing smell that emanated from the freshly printed sheets.

Making Dittos was a two-step process. The first step was to prepare the master, a two-ply form that had an easy-to-write-on paper sheet on top and a wax-coated sheet on the bottom. Our teachers would either hand write or typewrite the schoolwork onto one of these typically letter-size Ditto master forms. The pressure of the pen or the typewriter would transfer wax from the bottom sheet onto the back of the top sheet.

The second step—after discarding what was left of the bottom sheet—was to mount the master, bottom side up, onto the Ditto duplicating drum. The wrong-reading wax image contained the “ink” that was progressively broken down by the chemical spread across the drum as it was rotated—often by cranking the cylinder manually—and came into contact with the paper. Several dozen Ditto sheets could be easily produced within minutes.

A Ditto magazine ad from 1954 and a homework sheet from 1970

A Ditto magazine ad from 1954 and a homework sheet from 1970

On occasion, some of us even got to help out by operating the Ditto machine in the main office or teacher prep room. With the potentially messy and smelly solvent involved, sometimes there were mishaps. I bet our teachers ruined their clothes more than once fiddling around with the Ditto chemistry.

* * * * *

The Ditto machine was the American variety of a duplicating system that became popular internationally—the Banda in the UK and the Roneo in France and Australia—in schools, churches, clubs and other small organizations. The Ditto is known generically as a spirit duplicator; the term “spirit” referring to its alcohol-based solvent.

The faintly pleasant odor of the Ditto came from the fact that the each sheet was essentially being coated with “10% of monofluoro tri-chloro methane and 90% of a mixture of 50% methyl alcohol, 40% ethyl alcohol, 5% water and 5% of ethylene glycol mono-ethyl ether.” This composition was developed in the 1930s as a less dangerous alternative to the original spirits of pure methyl/ethyl alcohol with a tendency to combust in confined spaces and air temperatures above 100˚ F.

Since spirit duplicators were limited to a maximum of about 300 copies per master and the quality of reproduction as well as the cost per copy were very low, they became a DIY alternative to more sophisticated printing equipment. The Ditto was perhaps the most successful small office copying system during the four decades prior to the ascension of xerographic toner-based photocopiers in the 1970s.

Spirit duplicators were one of several document reproduction technologies that were developed for the office rather than the printing plant. Office duplicators were first invented in the late 1800s in response to the demands of business for efficiency and economy in reproducing company documents in small numbers. Alongside the typewriter, office duplicators answered the problem of business forms and letters by replacing the tedium of copying each one by hand.

Portrait of Albert Blake Dick

Portrait of Albert Blake Dick

Since commercially available printing machinery was very costly and too slow for these on-demand and short run copying needs, an alternative had to be found. In 1884, a Chicago lumber businessman devised a stencil-based method of document duplication that he would later call the “mimeograph.” From that point forward, the name “A.B. Dick” has been associated with the duplicating era of print technology.

Albert Blake Dick was born on April 16, 1856 in Galesburg, IL, a town about 175 miles southwest of Chicago and 50 miles northwest of Peoria. His parents, Adam Dick and Rebecca Wible, were from western Pennsylvania and decided to settle in Galesburg after helping to establish a church congregation in Quincy, IL.

Albert attended public school in Galesburg and then went to work for a farm equipment manufacturer in the area. After showing success as a manager, he became a partner in a lumber company. Just shy of his 28th birthday on April 11, 1884, the young Albert incorporated a lumber firm, the A.B. Dick Company, located at 740 Jackson Boulevard in Chicago.

It was during these early days that Albert preoccupied himself with the problem of business document reproduction. He rebelled against the effort wasted on a daily basis by hand copying price lists. Albert spent many hours experimenting with many unsuccessful ideas, most of them using the stencil principle.

The stencil method is distinct from other printing methods in which an inked image is mechanically transferred onto a substrate. Once a stencil sheet is prepared, it is mounted upon the ink-filled rotary duplicating drum. When a blank sheet of paper is brought into pressured contact with the rotating drum, ink is forced through the holes in the stencil onto the paper. Silk screening is also a form of stencil printing, but it utilizes a flatbed and squeegee process that is more wasteful than the process associated with A. B. Dick.

“My aim,” Albert would describe on the fiftieth anniversary of his company, “was to find a new means of duplicating letters other than by printing from moveable types, something more economical of both time and money.”

It did not take long. Sometime within the first year of his lumber firm, Albert sat down at his desk and across a piece of waxed paper he forced an awl (long pointed metal spike). After looking more carefully at what he had done, Albert noticed that the awl had left a series of tiny perforations on the wax paper. Developing this method, he perfected a sufficiently coated wax sheet as well as a stylus with which to write that could enable enough ink to be transferred to blank sheets of paper.

While his invention had achieved the immediate goal that he had set for himself, Albert returned his attention back to the development of his lumber company. For the next three years the stencil duplicating technique he pioneered remained an entirely internal matter at the A.B. Dick Company.

In 1887, following multiple inquiries by outsiders as to where a device such as his could be obtained, Albert decided to patent his invention with a plan to market and sell it to the broader business community. In a most peculiar and fortuitous coincidence it turned out that Thomas Alva Edison already held the patent for Albert’s stencil duplicating concept. In 1876, Edison had obtained a patent for his “Edison Electric Pen,” a more primitive implementation of the same principles that Albert had discovered independently, but nonetheless a very popular product.

With the Edison name behind him, Albert Blake Dick set out to sell the stencil printing Mimeograph system across the country

With the Edison name behind him, Albert Blake Dick set out to sell the stencil printing Mimeograph system across the country

Rather than walk away from the opportunity, the young Albert Blake Dick decided to approach Edison with his superior idea and see what arrangements could be made. Edison, ever the entrepreneur, readily accepted that Albert’s solution was simpler and more economical than his motorized pen technology. Furthermore, Edison agreed that his name would be associated with the product that Albert would develop and market.

In preparing to manufacture and sell the stencil system, Albert developed the trademark name. As he explained in 1934, “One day an old friend hit upon the combination of ‘mime’ and ‘graph.’ But it didn’t have the right swing. It wasn’t euphonious. Then the ‘o’ was added, to give it the swing—and the right euphony was acquired.”

The original Model 0 Flatbed Duplicator was sold as the Edison Mimeograph in 1887 and cost $12. A. B. Dick’s inventive genius did not stop there. By 1900, the company had developed the rotary Edison Diaphragm Mimeograph No. 61, the Edison Oscillating Mimeograph No. 71 and the A. B. Dick No.1 Folder, an automatic letter-folding machine.

A 1930 model of the A. B. Dick Mimeograph

A 1930 model of the A. B. Dick Mimeograph machine

By the 1910, there were 200,000 mimeograph machines in use and by 1940, nearly 500,000. In his Office Duplicating—which was printed in 1939 on an A.B. Dick Mimeograph machine—George H. Miller wrote, “There is little doubt that stencil duplicating in America owes its rapid and widespread growth to the Mimeograph machines and stencils as developed by the A.B. Dick Company.”

Albert Blake Dick died on August 15, 1934 and his son Albert Jr. took over the business at that time. In 1949, the company relocated to Niles, IL a suburb of Chicago. By the mid-1970s, while the Xerox machine was rapidly replacing the mimeograph, the A.B. Dick Company had annual sales of $300 million and employed more than 3,000 employees in the Chicago area.

As it declined, the firm was bought and sold by several concerns in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. In 2004, the A.B. Dick Company filed for bankruptcy and Presstek, a manufacturer of digital printing technologies, acquired the assets.

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