The Heroic Mimeograph

by Brad Edmonds by Brad Edmonds


I'm surprised spellchecker even accepts the word "mimeograph." Spellchecker doesn't accept the word "spellcheck," which we all use as a verb, but it probably will soon. Most people younger than 25 haven't heard of a mimeograph, but I remember the machines. They were a staple of life until I was maybe 20 years old.

For those unfamiliar with them, a mimeograph was a hand-cranked machine that reproduced typed pages one at a time, at relatively high speed (perhaps 120 per minute when cranked hard), at a very low cost. All the mimeographed pages I remember receiving from elementary school through four years of college used purple ink. The reproduction was clumsy, artless; not suitable for precision or small typefaces.

In elementary and junior high school, I can remember the smell of the pages that were still slightly wet with fresh ink. (Some teachers got their reproductions done just prior to class time.) I remember occasionally spying a teacher running the hand crank at the big machine in the small room. The sound was a noisy, mechanical, "clack clack clack." I can't overstress how loud the thing was.

At home 15 months ago, I cleaned out shelves and closets, boxing some things up, putting price tags on others for the big yard sale, and throwing the rest away. I came across tons of class notes from college that I saved in the belief I'd study them again some day. The fact that I was relocating then to pursue juicier opportunities owes to the course selections I found in those old piles of class notes – symbolic logic, 18th century counterpoint, and the like: Unbeatable intellectual exercise, but not particularly marketable.

For most of my music and philosophy courses in college, the teachers' handouts were mimeographed. Mimeographs seemed quaint even then, but these were the low-budget university departments. I finished my BA in 1985 at Alabama, in music, when mimeographs were already thoroughly obsolete (but still being used by musicians and philosophers). I headed to grad school in psychology. While psychology departments don't have the resources of, say, engineering or women's studies, psychology departments were and remain a few steps above music and philosophy in the pecking order. I never saw another new mimeographed page after the spring of 1985.

I probably should save just a few mimeographed pages to show my children and grandchildren. These were the sorts of pages read by people educated at all levels only during a brief period in human history. Like the rotary telephone, the mimeograph represents a little snapshot of a transitional phase in human history that many of us grew up believing was The Way Things Were. A few of these pages belong on display next to an 8-track tape player and an old-style VW Beetle.

Most baby boomers – who are older than I, thank you – saw mimeographs during their school years. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, your doctor, golfers from Arnold Palmer through Fred Couples, anyone who remembers what he was doing when Ronald Reagan was shot or when the Berlin Wall came down…these people remember mimeographs.

Coincidentally, when I was rifling through my possessions I was also newly, and temporarily, employed in a location that forced my commuting route very near my elementary school – the school where I first observed a teacher cranking a mimeograph machine. My tenure at that little school was long enough ago that the school didn't have air-conditioning. Remember, this was in Alabama. The lack of air-conditioning is significant in that, in my sixth-grade year, I remember washing cars and going door-to-door selling candy bars to raise money for air conditioners.

That is significant to me: A government school, whose funds were confiscated at gunpoint from innocent people, many of whom didn't have children at all; this school didn't have enough money for air-conditioning. I guarantee the principal was awarded an upper-middle-class salary. Government school principals are now comically overpaid, and the teachers make more than the private-school teachers who do a better job . . . but our government school didn't have money for window-unit air conditioners.

I would bet that the 1975 difference between the government school principal's salary and most private school principals' salaries would have paid for the air conditioners, in two years at most.

But I digress. Progress is progress, and it's a wonderful thing. When I was a child, high-tech printing was synonymous with wet, smelly, purple, low-resolution, mechanically-reproduced pages. When I entered grad school, the nasty, noisy, awkward little dot-matrix printer was so ubiquitous that the American Psychological Association mandated typewritten submissions for publication over computer-printed ones.

Today, for a cost in inflation-adjusted dollars far below a decent color television of 1975, we can produce and print, on a laser printer, at home, things that would've required expensive (in the commercial sense) printing presses back then.

Nostalgia is great, really; and some things from our childhood – mother's bringing us tea and crackers when we're sick, getting together a game of kickball with the neighborhood kids – can't be replaced no matter how high our standard of living. But due to the tireless pursuit of personal wealth our entrepreneurs exhibit, and in spite of increasing governmental restrictions on such activity and on our personal transactions with entrepreneurs, those entrepreneurs just keep making our lives better. Frankly, they need an unregulated hand in providing for-profit schooling.

Imagine what a breakthrough the mimeograph was in its time.