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Illustration of a typical mimeograph machine Mimeograph.svg
Illustration of a typical mimeograph machine

The stencil duplicator or mimeograph machine (often abbreviated to mimeo) is a low-cost duplicating machine that works by forcing ink through a stencil onto paper. [1] The mimeograph process should not be confused with the spirit duplicator process.


Mimeographs, along with spirit duplicators and hectographs, were a common technology in printing small quantities, as in office work, classroom materials, and church bulletins. Early fanzines were printed with this technology, because it was widespread and cheap. In the late 1960s, mimeographs, spirit duplicators, and hectographs began to be gradually displaced by photocopying.


Use of stencils is an ancient art, butthrough chemistry, papers, and pressestechniques advanced rapidly in the late nineteenth century:


A description of the Papyrograph method of duplication was published by David Owen: [2]

A major beneficiary of the invention of synthetic dyes was a document reproduction technique known as stencil duplicating. Its earliest form was invented in 1874 by Eugenio de Zuccato, a young Italian studying law in London, who called his device the Papyrograph. Zuccato’s system involved writing on a sheet of varnished paper with caustic ink, which ate through the varnish and paper fibers, leaving holes where the writing had been. This sheet – which had now become a stencil – was placed on a blank sheet of paper, and ink rolled over it so that the ink oozed through the holes, creating a duplicate on the second sheet.

The process was commercialized [3] [4] and Zuccato applied for a patent in 1895 having stencils prepared by typewriting. [5]

Electric pen

Thomas Edison received US patent 180,857 for Autographic Printing on August 8, 1876. [6] The patent covered the electric pen, used for making the stencil, and the flatbed duplicating press. In 1880 Edison obtained a further patent, US 224,665: "Method of Preparing Autographic Stencils for Printing," which covered the making of stencils using a file plate, a grooved metal plate on which the stencil was placed which perforated the stencil when written on with a blunt metal stylus. [7]

The word mimeograph was first used by Albert Blake Dick [8] when he licensed Edison's patents in 1887. [9]

Dick received Trademark Registration no. 0356815 for the term "Mimeograph" in the US Patent Office. It is currently listed as a dead entry, but shows the A.B. Dick Company of Chicago as the owner of the name.

Over time, the term became generic and is now an example of a genericized trademark. [10] ("Roneograph," also "Roneo machine," was another trademark used for mimeograph machines, the name being a contraction of Rotary Neostyle.)


In 1891, David Gestetner patented his Automatic Cyclostyle. This was one of the first rotary machines that retained the flatbed, which passed back and forth under inked rollers. This invention provided for more automated, faster reproductions since the pages were produced and moved by rollers instead of pressing one single sheet at a time.

By 1900, two primary types of mimeographs had come into use: a single-drum machine and a dual-drum machine. The single-drum machine used a single drum for ink transfer to the stencil, and the dual-drum machine used two drums and silk-screens to transfer the ink to the stencils. The single drum (example Roneo) machine could be easily used for multi-color work by changing the drum - each of which contained ink of a different color. This was spot color for mastheads. Colors could not be mixed.

The mimeograph became popular because it was much cheaper than traditional print - there was neither typesetting nor skilled labor involved. One individual with a typewriter and the necessary equipment became their own printing factory, allowing for greater circulation of printed material.

Mimeography process

The image transfer medium was originally a stencil made from waxed mulberry paper. Later this became an immersion-coated long-fibre paper, with the coating being a plasticized nitrocellulose. This flexible waxed or coated sheet is backed by a sheet of stiff card stock, with the two sheets bound at the top.

Once prepared, the stencil is wrapped around the ink-filled drum of the rotary machine. When a blank sheet of paper is drawn between the rotating drum and a pressure roller, ink is forced through the holes on the stencil onto the paper. Early flatbed machines used a kind of squeegee. The ink originally had a lanolin base [11] and later became an oil in water emulsion. This emulsion commonly uses Turkey-Red Oil (Sulfated Castor Oil) which gives it a distinctive and heavy scent.

Preparing stencils

For printed copy, a stencil assemblage is placed in a typewriter. The part of the mechanism which lifts the ribbon must be disabled so that the bare, sharp type element strikes the stencil directly. The impact of the type element displaces the coating, making the tissue paper permeable to the oil-based ink. This is called "cutting a stencil." [12]

A variety of specialized styluses were used on the stencil to render lettering, illustrations, or other artistic features by hand against a textured plastic backing plate. [13]

Mistakes were corrected by brushing them out with a specially formulated correction fluid, and retyping once it has dried. ("Obliterine" was a popular brand of correction fluid in Australia and the United Kingdom.) [14]

Stencils were also made with a thermal process, an infrared method similar to that used by early photocopiers. The common machine was a Thermofax.

Another device, called an electrostencil machine, sometimes was used to make mimeo stencils from a typed or printed original. It worked by scanning the original on a rotating drum with a moving optical head and burning through the blank stencil with an electric spark in the places where the optical head detected ink. It was slow and produced ozone. Text from electrostencils had lower resolution than that from typed stencils, although the process was good for reproducing illustrations. A skilled mimeo operator using an electrostencil and a very coarse halftone screen could make acceptable printed copies of a photograph.

During the declining years of the mimeograph, some people made stencils with early computers and dot-matrix impact printers. [15]


Unlike spirit duplicators (where the only ink available is depleted from the master image), mimeograph technology works by forcing a replenishable supply of ink through the stencil master. In theory, the mimeography process could be continued indefinitely, especially if a durable stencil master were used (e.g. a thin metal foil). In practice, most low-cost mimeo stencils gradually wear out over the course of producing several hundred copies. Typically the stencil deteriorates gradually, producing a characteristic degraded image quality until the stencil tears, abruptly ending the print run. If further copies are desired at this point, another stencil must be made.

Often, the stencil material covering the interiors of closed letterforms (e.g. "a", "b", "d", "e", "g", etc.) would fall away during continued printing, causing ink-filled letters in the copies. The stencil would gradually stretch, starting near the top where the mechanical forces were greatest, causing a characteristic "mid-line sag" in the textual lines of the copies, that would progress until the stencil failed completely. The Gestetner Company (and others) devised various methods to make mimeo stencils more durable. [16]

Compared to spirit duplication, mimeography produced a darker, more legible image. Spirit duplicated images were usually tinted a light purple or lavender, which gradually became lighter over the course of some dozens of copies. Mimeography was often considered "the next step up" in quality, capable of producing hundreds of copies. Print runs beyond that level were usually produced by professional printers or, as the technology became available, xerographic copiers.


Mimeographed images generally have much better durability than spirit-duplicated images, since the inks are more resistant to ultraviolet light. The primary preservation challenge is the low-quality paper often used, which would yellow and degrade due to residual acid in the treated pulp from which the paper was made. In the worst case, old copies can crumble into small particles when handled. Mimeographed copies have moderate durability when acid-free paper is used.[ citation needed ]

Contemporary use

Gestetner, Risograph, and other companies still make and sell highly automated mimeograph-like machines that are externally similar to photocopiers. The modern version of a mimeograph, called a digital duplicator, or copyprinter, contains a scanner, a thermal head for stencil cutting, and a large roll of stencil material entirely inside the unit. The stencil material consists of a very thin polymer film laminated to a long-fibre non-woven tissue. It makes the stencils and mounts and unmounts them from the print drum automatically, making it almost as easy to operate as a photocopier. The Risograph is the best known of these machines.

Although mimeographs remain more economical and energy-efficient in mid-range quantities, easier-to-use photocopying and offset printing have replaced mimeography almost entirely in developed countries. Mimeograph machines continue to be used in developing countries because it is a simple, cheap, and robust technology. Many mimeographs can be hand-cranked, requiring no electricity.

Uses and art

Mimeographs and the closely related but distinctly different spirit duplicator process were both used extensively in schools to copy homework assignments and tests. They were also commonly used for low-budget amateur publishing, including club newsletters and church bulletins. They were especially popular with science fiction fans, who used them extensively in the production of fanzines in the middle 20th century, before photocopying became inexpensive.

Letters and typographical symbols were sometimes used to create illustrations, in a precursor to ASCII art. Because changing ink color in a mimeograph could be a laborious process, involving extensively cleaning the machine or, on newer models, replacing the drum or rollers, and then running the paper through the machine a second time, some fanzine publishers experimented with techniques for painting several colors on the pad, notably Shelby Vick, who created a kind of plaid "Vicolor".[ citation needed ]

See also

Related Research Articles

Printmaking activity or occupation of making prints from plates or blocks

Printmaking is the process of creating artworks by printing, normally on paper. Printmaking normally covers only the process of creating prints that have an element of originality, rather than just being a photographic reproduction of a painting. Except in the case of monotyping, the process is capable of producing multiples of the same piece, which is called a print. Each print produced is considered an "original" work of art, and is correctly referred to as an "impression", not a "copy". Often impressions vary considerably, whether intentionally or not. The images on most prints are created for that purpose, perhaps with a preparatory study such as a drawing. A print that copies another work of art, especially a painting, is known as a "reproductive print".

Printing process for reproducing text and images using a master form or template

Printing is a process for mass reproducing text and images using a master form or template. The earliest non-paper products involving printing include cylinder seals and objects such as the Cyrus Cylinder and the Cylinders of Nabonidus. The earliest known form of printing as applied to paper was woodblock printing, which appeared in China before 220 AD. Later developments in printing technology include the movable type invented by Bi Sheng around 1040 AD and the printing press invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the 15th century. The technology of printing played a key role in the development of the Renaissance and the scientific revolution, and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.

Duplicating machines were the predecessors of modern document-reproduction technology. They have now been replaced by digital duplicators, scanners, laser printers and photocopiers, but for many years they were the primary means of reproducing documents for limited-run distribution. The duplicator was pioneered by Thomas Edison and David Gestetner, with Gestetner dominating the market up until the late 1990s.

Stencil thin sheet of material, with letters or a design cut from it, used to produce the letters or design on an underlying surface

Stencilling produces an image or pattern by applying pigment to a surface over an intermediate object with designed gaps in it which create the pattern or image by only allowing the pigment to reach some parts of the surface. The stencil is both the resulting image or pattern and the intermediate object; the context in which stencil is used makes clear which meaning is intended. In practice, the (object) stencil is usually a thin sheet of material, such as paper, plastic, wood or metal, with letters or a design cut from it, used to produce the letters or design on an underlying surface by applying pigment through the cut-out holes in the material.

Spirit duplicator low-cost printing technology common in the 20th century

A spirit duplicator is a printing method invented in 1923 by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld that was commonly used for much of the rest of the 20th century. The term "spirit duplicator" refers to the alcohols that were a major component of the solvents used as "inks" in these machines. The device coexisted alongside the mimeograph.

Hectograph printing process that involves transfer of an original, prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad pulled tight on a metal frame

The hectograph, gelatin duplicator or jellygraph is a printing process that involves transfer of an original, prepared with special inks, to a pan of gelatin or a gelatin pad pulled tight on a metal frame.

Xerography reprographic process by Xerox

Xerography or electrophotography is a dry photocopying technique. Its fundamental principle was invented by American physicist Chester Carlson and based on Hungarian physicist Pál Selényi's publications. Chester Carlson applied for and was awarded U.S. Patent 2,297,691 on October 6, 1942. The technique was originally called electrophotography. It was later renamed xerography—from the Greek roots ξηρός xeros, "dry" and -γραφία -graphia, "writing"—to emphasize that, unlike reproduction techniques then in use such as cyanotype, this process used no liquid chemicals.

Offset printing printing technique where an inked image is transferred from plate to printing surface via a rubber blanket

Offset printing is a commonly used printing technique in which the inked image is transferred from a plate to a rubber blanket, then to the printing surface. When used in combination with the lithographic process, which is based on the repulsion of oil and water, the offset technique employs a flat (planographic) image carrier. Ink rollers transfer ink to the image areas of the image carrier, while a water roller applies a water-based film to the non-image areas.

Gestetner duplicating machine

The Gestetner is a type of duplicating machine named after its inventor, David Gestetner. During the 20th century, the term Gestetner has been used as a verb—as in Gestetnering. The Gestetner company established its base in London, filing its first patent in 1879. The business grew, remaining within the control of the Gestetner family, and acquiring other businesses. In 1995, the Gestetner company was acquired by the Ricoh Corporation of Japan.

Electric pen

Thomas Edison's electric pen, part of a complete outfit for duplicating handwritten documents and drawings, was the first relatively safe electric-motor-driven office appliance produced and sold in the United States.

David Gestetner Austrian inventor

David Gestetner was the inventor of the Gestetner stencil duplicator, the first piece of office equipment that allowed production of numerous copies of documents quickly and inexpensively. He was awarded the John Scott Medal of The Franklin Institute in 1888.

Cyclostyle (copier)

The Cyclostyle duplicating process is a form of stencil copying. A stencil is cut on wax or glazed paper by using a pen-like object with a small rowel on its tip. A large number of small short lines are cut out in the glazed paper, removing the glaze with the spur-wheel, then ink is applied. It was invented in the later 19th century by David Gestetner, who named it "cyclostyle" after a drawing tool he used. Its name incorporates "stylus", classical Latin word for a pen.

Gocco is a self-contained compact color printing system invented in 1977 by Noboru Hayama. Gocco became immensely popular in Japan and it is estimated that one-third of Japanese households own a Print Gocco system. The printing mechanism is that of screen printing. The Gocco sets included the materials and tools to both make the screens, and to use these screens for printing. As the Gocco screens are quite small, they were most widely used for printing greeting cards, a popular need within Japanese culture. Gocco could also print to fabrics, although only across a small area. The Gocco printing screens did offer good registration, so two or more colour printing was practical and popular.


Risograph is a brand of digital duplicators manufactured by the Riso Kagaku Corporation, that are designed mainly for high-volume photocopying and printing. It was released in Japan in August 1986. It is sometimes called a digital duplicator or printer-duplicator, as newer models can be used as a network printer as well as a stand-alone duplicator. When printing or copying many duplicates of the same content, it is typically far less expensive per page than a conventional photocopier, laser printer, or inkjet printer.

The Photostat machine, or Photostat, was an early projection photocopier created in the decade of the 1900s by the Commercial Camera Company, which became the Photostat Corporation. The "Photostat" name, which was originally a trademark of the company, became genericized, and was often used to refer to similar machines produced by the Rectigraph Company.

Thermo-Fax is 3M's trademarked name for a photocopying technology which was introduced in 1950. It was a form of thermographic printing and an example of a dry silver process. It was a significant advance as no chemicals were required, other than those contained in the copy paper itself. A thin sheet of heat sensitive copy paper was placed on the original document to be copied, and exposed to infrared energy. Wherever the image on the original paper contained carbon, the image absorbed the infrared energy when heated. The heated image then transferred the heat to the heat sensitive paper producing a blackened copy image of the original.

Photocopier device for reproducing documents

A photocopier is a machine that makes copies of documents and other visual images onto paper or plastic film quickly and cheaply. Most modern photocopiers use a technology called xerography, a dry process that uses electrostatic charges on a light-sensitive photoreceptor to first attract and then transfer toner particles onto paper in the form of an image. Heat, pressure or a combination of both is then used to fuse the toner onto the paper. Copiers can also use other technologies such as ink jet, but xerography is standard for office copying. Earlier versions included the Gestetner stencil duplicator, invented by David Gestetner in 1887.

The A. B. Dick Company was a major American manufacturer of copy machines and office supplies in the late 19th century and 20th century.

<i>Spokane Natural</i>

Spokane Natural was an underground newspaper published biweekly in Spokane, Washington from May 5, 1967 to November 13, 1970, by the Mandala Printshop, and edited by Russ Nobbs. It belonged to the Underground Press Syndicate and the Liberation News Service. The first issue was produced out of a converted barbershop storefront cum bookstore and hangout called the "Hippie Mission" on a cul-de-sac in Spokane, where Russ Nobbs and a visiting friend from the SF Bay area, Ormond Otvos wrote and produced the first 8 page issue on a hand-cranked Spirit duplicator. After several issues of pale blue "Ditto" print on white paper, The Natural moved to colored papers and occasionally colored ink with a Gestetner Mimeograph duplicator. Ultimately, the newspaper was printed on newsprint by sheet fed or web presses by various printers in Spokane, Seattle and Davenport, WA.


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  2. David Owen (2008) Copies in Seconds, page 42, Simon & Schuster, Google book preview
  3. 1878: Library Journal 3:390 Advertisement via Google Books
  4. Antique Copying Machines from Office Museum
  5. Eugenic de Zuccato (1895) Patent US548116 Improvement for stencils from typewriting
  6. http://edison.rutgers.edu/patents/00180857.PDF
  7. http://edison.rutgers.edu/patents/00224665.PDF
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  9. http://edison.rutgers.edu/NamesSearch/SingleDoc.php3?DocId=LB024149
  10. "mimeograph. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000". Archived from the original on 8 September 2008.
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  14. "How to correct a mimeograph stencil". LinguaLinks Library. SIL International. Archived from the original on 2012-10-16. Retrieved 2011-05-10.
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  16. "Duplicating stencil". Patentstorm. Archived from the original on 2013-04-21. Retrieved 2011-05-10.

Further reading