Other duplicators

The spirit duplicator should not be confused with similar duplicating systems; namely the hectograph and stencil duplicators. Nevertheless, “even among people who grew up with these devices, there exists a lot of confusion as to which was which“ (Kormuki, 2017: p. 41).

Electric Pen


he first duplicating system employing electricity was the electric pen, invented by Thomas A. Edison. His creation later inspired the duplicating technologies, as well as the first patent for an electric tattoo machine, developed in 1884 by Samuel F. O’Reilly (see Komurki, 2017: pp. 18ff).

The Electric Pen consisted of a pen with a needle instead of a lead, that—much like a tattoo machine—perforated the paper with 50 punctures per second (or 3’000 punctures per minute). The needle was connected to a wet-cell battery, “which was wired to an electric motor mounted on top of a pen-like shaft“ (Burns, 2010). The pen was part of a complete duplicating set, also containing a flatbed, an ink roller and a frame. Once the master was perforated, it was put on top of a blank sheet. An ink roller was used to spread the ink all over the master and the ink transferred through the perforated surface create a copy (see Burns, 2010). The Electric Pen is therefore a stencil duplicating system.

Based on the electric pen, another invention was developed: the hectograph. It used the recently discovered, first synthetic dye: anilin purple. It is based on the principle of planographic printing. Because of the gelatin, the hectograph was also frequently called jellygraph.

The master was created by writing on a sheet of paper with aniline ink. This you then pressed into the gelatine, which would absorb the ink, creating a mirror-image imprint in its surface. On top of this you would then place a blank piece of paper and leave it for a few moments, stroking gently the back of it, until it had picked up an imprint of the master. This process could be repeated a number of times, with the prints getting progressively fainter, until all the ink had been lifted off the gelatine (Kormuki, 2017: p.40).

Stencil duplicator

The term stencil duplicator describes a family of printing systems that create prints by pressing ink through a perforated master.

The basic process of all stencil duplicating technologies is the same. A special sheet of paper, often coated with wax or another impermeable substance, is inscribed with a suitable tool, perforating tiny holes in the paper. Ink or dye is then pushed through the perforations of this piece of paper (the stencil) onto a blank one, creating an imprint of whatever was inscribed on the stencil (Kormuki, 2017: p. 18).

The stencil of a mimeograph and Roneo were created by perforating a paraffin-coated paper with the help of a typewriter (see Cole, D.J. / Browning, E. / Schroeder, F.E.H. 1948: p. 83).

Stencil duplicating systems include the Risograph, the mimeograph, Roneo and the Gestetner. The mimeograph, Roneo and Gestetner each describe a specific type of stencil duplicators by different manufacturers, but their names get frequently mixed up or are used interchangeably.


The mimeograph is a stencil duplicator manufactured by the A. B. Dick Company in Chicago and based on the Electric Pen by Thomas A. Edison, who sold the patent to Dick in 1876 (see Weber, 2016). The term mimeograph, created by A. B. Dick himself, became so popular, it was used to refer to stencil duplicators no matter the manufacturer, becoming a generic trademark (see Kormuki, 2017: p.25).


The Gestetner is a stencil duplicator manufactured in the United Kingdom. Different from the mimeograph and the Roneo, the Gestetner, named after his inventor, uses two drums instead of one (see Kormuki, 2017: p. 34). “It worked by passing the silk ink-screen round two cylinders, to one of which ink was applied. The ink was transferred from the ink-screen to the stencil laid on top of it. As in the mimeo[graph], a mangle was then turned, pressing the copy paper against the ink-impregnated stencil“ (Kormuki, 2017: p. 38).


Roneo is another stencil duplicator resembling the mimeograph, manufactured by Roneo Limited. The machine was originally called the rotary neostyle and produced by the US distributer of the Gestetner, once he relocated to London. Gestetner claimed the word ‚rotary’ and the name had to be changed into Roneo (the combination of the first two syllables of rotary cyclostyle). The term ‚Roneo’ is often used—especially in the United Kingdom, France and Australia—when referring to a stencil duplicator of any model (Komurki, 2017: p. 38).

Works cited

Burns, B. (2010). Edison’s Electric Pen—1875: the beginning of office copying technology. Retrieved January 28, 2018, from FTL Design.

Cole, D.J. / Browning E. / Schroeder, F.E.H. (2003). Encyclopedia of modern everyday inventions. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Kormuki, J. Z. (2017). Risomania—The new spirit of printing (first edition). Salenstein: Niggli Verlag.

Weber, G. (2016). How an Obsolete Copy Machine Started a Revolution. The mimeograph—and the words it printed—changed a generation. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from National Geographic.

Presenting: the spirit duplicator

The spirit duplicator is a peculiar yet enchanting machine used mainly in institutions during the 20th century.

Past and present


he spirit duplicator was invented and patented in 1923 by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld in Germany. Based on the hectograph (further described below in Other duplicators), the machine used carbon paper and dissolvent instead of a gelatin pad to create inexpensive prints (see Cole, D.J. / Browning, E. / Schroeder, F.E.H. (1948): p. 84, Kormuki, J. Z. (2017): p. 40).

The most noticable aspect about the spirit duplicator, which is part of its nostalgic mystique, was probably the smell of the dissolvent emanating from the printing process. It consisted mainly of methyl alcohol (a highly volatile liquid) and possibly caused the school personnel and frequent users of the duplicator to suffer from “[…] headaches, dizziness, nausea, blurred vision and other ominous symptoms“ (Zorn, 2007). The smell was so distinctive that it became part of the machine’s identity and inspired the name spirit duplicator.

Copies were produced directly from the original, by placing a sheet of carbon paper below before writing (or drawing) on it. The carbon paper then created a mirrored image on the back of the original, which was called the master sheet or master. The master was then attached to the machine’s drum. By rotating the drum, the volatile liquid moistened and slightly dissolved the ink, allowing a small quantity of it to be transferred to sheets of paper and therefore create the copy. Is was possible to create to 300 copies that became fainter with each transfer, before the ink dissolved completely (see Cole, D.J. / Browning, E. / Schroeder, F.E.H. (1948): p. 84).

“The smell was so distinctive that it became part of the machine’s identity and inspired the name spirit duplicator.”

It was common, especially in the United States, to refer to the machine as Ditto or Ditto machine, which was the name of the largest manufacturer in the US: the Chicago-based company called Ditto, Inc. The name of the manufacturer became a generic trademark (see Zorn, 2007). In the United Kingdom, the machine was produced by the Associated Automation Ltd and also known as Banda. The Canadian version of the spirit duplicator was Copyrex, promoted by its manufacturer as liquid duplicator. Dupleco was the name of the Italian model and was promoted as alcohol duplicator. In Germany it was manufactured by Geha and Trommler. In the German language, the machines are also called Matritzendrucker (master printer) or Blaudrucker (blue printer), making reference to the typical indigo ink provided by the aniline dye of the carbon paper.

By the end of the 20th century, the use of spirit duplicators declined (see Zorn, 2007). The xerographic copying machine became affordable and produced better quality copies in shorter time. But the charm of spirit duplicators remained. There is still an occasional demand for a print with a soul, or as Kormuki (2017: p.41) puts it: „[…] if you want to make a print that has character and aesthetic presence, is memorable and worth keeping, then old school is for you“ (Kormuki, 2017: p. 41).

Works cited

Cole, D.J. / Browning E. / Schroeder, F.E.H. (2003). Encyclopedia of modern everyday inventions. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Kormuki, J. Z. (2017). Risomania—The new spirit of printing (first edition). Salenstein: Niggli Verlag.

Zorn, E. (2007). That ditto high is harder and harder to duplicate. Retrieved February 22, 2018, from Chicago Tribune: http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2007/01/ditto_machines_.html