The WABAC (and round-and-round) Machine

May 14th, 2014 by Harrumpher Leave a reply »

gmimeoFrom first grade, I was what could loosely be called a Red Cross volunteer. That is, my mother ran the local chapter, and pressed my older sister and me into service as needed.

At its worst, one time the three of us picked up the slack when real volunteers punked out. We worked all evening and night, stapling white, pink and red tissue paper (flowers) all around and on a flatbed trailer to be the basis of the RC float in the next day’s July 4th parade. (Actually, I recall enjoying being able to stay up all night, which I perceived as limited to adults, not elementary school kids.)

More typically, it was newsletters, newsletters, newsletters. Teens and adults also joined in, but it seems my sister Pat and I always had our role (after homework of course).

We became very adept at folding 8.5X11 sheets into precise thirds and stuffing them into number 10 envelopes. We used sensuously smooth whale bone to make the creases. Even now I wonder who ended up with those ivory treasures as they became illegal to own.

The newsletters themselves were most often done on mimeograph machines, as the Gestetner model above. My mother’s chapters tended toward that brand, which seemed indestructible, even when operated by volunteers as young as 6 or into their 80s.

I haven’t even gotten into this repro technology with my three sons. They are aghast hearing of the cheap thrills of moving from manual to electric typewriters. I’m not so sure they believe my tales of batch processing on a shared mainframe computer long before PCs existed. I did save the manual from my first PC, an Intertec Data System Superbrain. It had a 9-inch, monochrome screen and 64kb of RAM (not as typo — 64 kilobytes; we didn’t know of giga anything in 1981). A word processing program would load in 32K, leaving 32K for data.

Actually with no graphics or color, that was adequate. Moreover, even booting from one of the floppies (hard drives were about $5,000 or more), it was ready to use in seconds, much faster than today’s boxes. There basically wasn’t anything to test before loading the OS.

Here and now, we have Apple and Windows computers, desktops, laptops and tablets. We have laser and color inkjet printers, which we share wirelessly.

Mimeographs were not that way. (wikipedia as a good backgrounder on the technology.)

I remember the fragile, wax-based sheets you’d baby into readiness, wrap about the ink-filled drum and hope to hell they held at least for the print run.

You’d type without a ribbon to etch the sheet so the ink had places to go. You’d hope that the hollow letters, like B or g, did not destroy and tear the stencil. If you wanted illustrations, you drew directly on the stencil with a metal stylus or physically glued a doctored piece of stencil in place.

Those mimeograph users really had to be competent.

There are still mimeograph machines around. They are generations removed from the ones I used. They are now large, expensive and special purpose.

On the way to iPad Air and such, we went through the horror of desktop publishing. Starting around 1985, that software on PCs pushed the likes of mimeographs into closets. Suddenly everyone was buying dot-matrix printers and the likes of PageMaker or a half dozen other layout programs. You could do newsletters in a fifth or a tenth of the time…all without fragile stencils and smearing ink.

Of course, if you were around, you saw the dreadful results. Newsletters, promotional material and even Christmas letters looked the same. Everyone tucked in all the pictures they could and used dozens of fonts and headline styles per newsletter. It was the hideously overwrought style we were taught to avoid in our journalism-school classes — circus layout, from being in the garish style of a Ringling Bros. poster. Every became editor, artist and publisher in one.

That curse carried over although the technology is long gone. We see its vestiges in Apple-based culture. That would be the likes of barely illegible sans serif fonts (from days when serif type was jagged, but no longer necessary), and white or other light type on a dark background, and still online and in print too many damned headline and body styles.

Stop it already. Contain yourself!

In fairness, I should relax myself. Most people just don’t know where their bad habits and preferences arose.

 

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One Response

  1. What I remember about mimeographs was the way the printed sheets of paper smelled, and the cool feel of them if they were “fresh.”

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