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Illustration of a typical mimeograph machine.

The stencil duplicator or mimeograph machine (often abbreviated to mimeo) is a low-cost printing press that works by forcing ink through a stencil onto paper.

Along with spirit duplicators and hectographs, mimeographs were for many decades used to print short-run office work, classroom materials, and church bulletins. They also were critical to the development of early fanzines because their low cost and availability enabled publication of amateur writings. These technologies began to be supplanted by photocopying and cheap offset printing in the late 1960s.

Although in mid-range quantities mimeographs remain more economical and energy efficient, easier-to-use photocopying and offset have replaced mimeography almost entirely in developed countries, although it continues to be a working technology in developing countries because it's a simpler, cheaper, and more robust technology, and because many mimeographs can be hand-cranked and thus require no electricity.

Origins of the mimeograph

Advertisement from 1889 for the Edison Mimeograph
1918 illustration of a mimeograph machine.
Thomas Edison received US patent 180,857 for "Autographic Printing" on August 8, 1876. 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.

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

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

Over time, the term became generic and is now an example of a genericized trademark. ("Roneograph," also "Roneo machine," was another trademark used for mimeograph machines, although they also made spirit (alcohol) duplicators, the name coming from Spanish for rum.)

Others who worked concurrently on the development of stencil duplicating were Eugenio de Zaccato and David Gestetner, both in Britain. In Britain the machines were most often referred to as "duplicators", though the predominance of Gestetner and Roneo in the UK market meant that some people referred to the machine by one of those two manufacturers' names.

In 1891, 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 mimeograph became popular because it was much cheaper than traditional print - there was no typesetting or skilled labor involved. One individual with a typewriter and the necessary equipment essentially became his own printing factory, which allowed for greater circulation of printed material.

The mimeography process

The image transfer medium is a stencil made from waxed mulberry paper. This flexible waxed sheet is backed by a sheet of stiff card stock, with the 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.

Preparing stencils

For printed copy, a stencil assemblage is placed in a typewriter. The typewriter ribbon has to be disabled so that the bare, sharp type element strikes the stencil directly. The impact of the type element displaces the wax, making the tissue paper permeable to the oil-based ink. This is called "cutting a stencil."

A variety of specialized styluses were used on the stencil to render lettering or illustrations by hand against a textured plastic backing plate. On-stencil illustration is an art.

Mistakes can be corrected by brushing them out with correction fluid and retyping once it has dried. ("Obliterine" was a popular brand of correction fluid in Australia and the United Kingdommarker.)

Stencils were also made with a thermal process, an infrared method similar to that used by early photocopiers. The common machine was called 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 filled the air with ozone and text produced from electrostencils was of lower resolution than that produced by 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.

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. It makes the stencils and mounts and unmounts them from the print drum automatically, making it almost as easy to operate as a photocopier. Risographs are the best known of these machines.

Uses and art

Mimeographs were 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."

Penelope Rosemont pioneered a surrealist technique of peeling the backing away from the stencil to create a "mimeogram."

See also



  • Hutchison, Howard. Mimeograph: Operation Maintenance and Repair. Blue Ridge Summit: Tab Books, 1979.

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