“I am my own secretary; I dictate, I compose, I copy all myself”*…
In this age of the email attachment and of the “duplicate” and “save as” commands, we’ve come to take copies for granted. But the quest for a way easily to make/keep duplicates of correspondence and records without transcribing them has a long history: most readers will be old enough to remember the days when Xerox machines– introduced in 1959**– were the duplicators of choice; and some, the era of the carbon copy. But while xerography ruled for around 50 years, carbon paper held sway for over 100.
The first version of carbon paper was patented by Ralph Wedgwood—an estranged member of the famous Wedgwood pottery family—in 1806. The paper was the central component of Wedgwood’s “Manifold Stylographic Writer,” which was originally meant to aid the blind in writing (through the addition of thin metal wires to guide in forming words along lines), but was soon used primarily as a copying device. Wedgwood wasn’t the only manufacturer of manifold writers; the portable (approx. 8.5 x 10 in) leather wallet above includes a label naming “inventor and patentee” F. Folsch.
Early adopters were mixed in their reviews.
Poet Robert Southey called it a “very excellent contrivance”; on the other hand, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Charles Willson Peale in 1807, noting with disapproval the olfactory effect of the oil used to create the carbonated paper: “The fetid smell of the copying paper would render a room pestiferous, if filled with presses of such papers.”
In the end, wide adoption of carbon paper came in the 1870s with the introduction of typewriting (and the development of better-smelling ink).
Read more at Slate in Nora Wilkinson’s “The Nifty, Portable Copying Technology Used by Early-19th-Century Letter-Writers,” and even more in her longer post on the subject on the Bodleian Library’s Conveyor blog.
* the Venerable Bede
** The Xerox machine was the much sharper competitor of- and, with it’s technological copycats, ultimately replacement for– the first office copiers, introduced in 195o (main among them, 3M’s Therma-Fax machine).
As we savor sharing, we might send nostalgic birthday greetings to that most exquisite of (self-)copiers, Valentin Louis Georges Eugène Marcel Proust; he was born on this date in 1871. Proust spent the last three years of his life confined to his cork-lined bedroom, working to complete what Somerset Maugham called the “greatest fiction to date,” the seven-volume novel A la Recherche de Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, or as more recently translated, In Search of Lost Time).
All the greatest things we know have come to us from neurotics. It is they and they only who have founded religions and created great works of art. Never will the world be conscious of how much it owes to them, nor above all of what they have suffered in order to bestow their gifts on it.
– Remembrance of Things Past: The Guermantes Way