By Norris Chambers

             Today’s copy-cats take copying machines and computers almost for granted. It is a simple matter to print a few copies of a newsletter, picture or a valuable coupon. But there was a time when duplicate copies were not that easy to make. You could use carbon paper with an old typewriter and get three reasonably good copies. Or you could just take your time and type as many copies as you needed.

            There was a machine called a mimeograph that would print several hundred copies of a typed page. The master copy had to be typed on a special stencil plate with the ribbon removed from the typewriter. The only problem was that the machine was too expensive for the average copy-cat.

            When I was typing manuscripts for writers most of the customers wanted two carbon copies. This was easy enough to do, but if you made a mistake it was a little difficult to go through all three copies and erase and retype it correctly. It could be done but it was a little time consuming.

            Before I started typing for writers I knew that I needed a better typewriter than the old Fox that I had been using five or six years. The copy that it produced was not very pretty. The anxious writers wouldn’t want to offend an editor with a sloppy typing job. I was a little short of capital and it didn’t look like I would be able to buy a new typewriter.

            I got a lucky break. My sister was teaching in a small school and she told me she would like to issue a newsletter for the students and she wanted to know if there was any way to prepare about twenty-five copies. I had seen some advertisements offering to sell a copying device called a hectograph. The copier was pretty simple. It appeared to be a thin, large pan with a hinged lid. Inside was some substance that apparently held an image and transferred it to a sheet of paper. I ordered a supply catalog and from it I found out how it worked. The shallow pan was filled with a jelly-like material. A master page was made using a special typewriter ribbon or special pencils or inks. This master was placed copy-side down on the flat jelly-like surface, left a few minutes and removed. When removed the surface of the substance had retained most of the copy that was on  the master. When a sheet of paper was placed on the material and removed it was a copy of the original master. The pan material could be washed clean and another job produced.

            The system was relatively expensive but the jelly-like substance for refilling the pan was cheap. I figured a thin baking pan would work and these were readily available in the kitchen. A can of refill stuff, a typewriter ribbon, a bottle of ink and a few pencils would produce the copies my sister wanted. She readily agreed after reading about it and listening to my explanation.

            We ordered the supplies and waited to see how the operation would work. The big package came and I poured the jelly-like stuff into a flat baking pan that was large enough to handle a sheet of paper. In a few hours the jelly was firm and apparently ready for a trial run.

            I put the hectograph ribbon on the old typewriter and proceeded to type a trial sentence. I was not as dramatic as Samuel Morse when he sent the first telegraph message and clicked out “What hath God wrought?”  I think I just wrote “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”

I pressed the sheet face down on the jelly and waited a few minutes. When I removed it the impression of the typing was very plain on the surface. I pressed a sheet of paper over it and carefully removed it. There was a nice, clear copy of the sentence I had typed. I made a few copies then washed the surface of the jelly until the writing was gone. I was now ready to start another copying job. It was then that I saw the need for the refill substance – after several washings the copying bed would be gone.

            My sister was pleased with the copy but she agreed that I needed a new typewriter. She agreed to buy me a new typewriter if I would do the newsletter and test papers for her. I quickly agreed and soon owned my first new typewriter – a Smith-Corona. The new machine did beautiful typing and the cheap hectograph did good copying.

            With the new typewriter I was able to establish a small business doing mail order typing.

I didn’t get rich charging 25 cents per thousand words, but I made more money than I could make catching and skinning ‘possums and I made it easier! Was copying with a hectograph fun?

It was fun, but it might have been funnier if someone had come by and spread some of the jelly stuff on a hot biscuit and added it to his breakfast menu!