Thursday, April 17, 2014

What the #@*% is a Ditto Machine?

In the 1984 film Teachers, Royal Dano played a teacher named Ditto Stiles. Ditto was known for having virtually no interactions with his students. He had established a system by which students automatically distributed "ditto" worksheets that would be collected at the end of the class by other students. Throughout the class, Ditto would hide behind a newspaper. Ultimately, Ditto dies in the classroom, but isn't discovered until the end of the day as his students continue to follow the standard routine. In the following clip, Ditto gets into a confrontation with the school psychologist over the use of the Ditto machine.

If you are an educator of a certain age (as am I), you likely have many memories, both good and maybe not so good, of the “Ditto machine."
In North America, "Ditto" is a brand name which was commonly used for a spirit duplicator (referred to as a Banda machine in the UK, a Roneo in France and Australia). Spirit duplicating is a printing method invented in 1923, by Wilhelm Ritzerfeld and commonly used for much of the rest of the 20th century. The term "spirit" refers to the alcohols which were a principal ingredient in the solvents used as inks in these machines.
Ditto machine
The spirit duplicator is sometimes incorrectly referred to as a "mimeograph," which was a different, but not dissimilar process. Mimeograph machines predated the spirit duplicator. Despite lower cost per copy and better print quality, they fell out of favor because they required the handling of messy ink.
Because of the limited number of copies that could be made from an original (usually 500 or fewer), spirit duplicators were most often used by schools, churches, clubs, and other small organizations that didn't require mass printings. The initial cost of the machine was relatively high (between two and three thousand current dollars), but the relatively low per copy cost of spirit duplicating offset the fairly poor quality of the output.
Introduced by 3M in the late 1960s, the thermofax machine could generate a spirit master from an ordinary printed, typed, or handwritten sheet. Not withstanding the horrible print quality, the machines were still popular because of their convenience.
Ditto ad
The usual print color, purple, provided good contrast, but masters were also available in red, green, blue, black, and a few other colors. Spirit duplicators had the useful ability to print multiple colors in a single pass. In my first year of teaching, I astounded several colleagues by printing sheets with multi-colored diagrams!
Spirit duplicator use began to wain starting with the availability of low-cost, high-volume xerographic copiers in the 1970s. The use of spirit duplicators today is very rare. They do remain useful where electrical power is unreliable.
Spirit duplicators owed most of their popularity to their relative ease of use. Even the least technically-minded teachers could make use of them.
The dominant manufacturer of spirit duplicators in the US and the world was Ditto Corporation of Illinois, while copiers available in the UK were commonly manufactured by the Block & Anderson company, under their "Banda" brand.
More Ditto in Pop Culture
The aroma of pages fresh off the spirit duplicator is a memorable feature of school life in an earlier era. A scene referencing the smell can be found in the 1982 film Fast Times At Ridgemont High. At one point a teacher distributes duplicated copies, and every student immediately lifts it to his/her nose and inhales deeply. It was a common myth among students that inhaling the distinctive vapors given off by fresh spirit duplicator copies could provide a “high."
The song "School Teacher's Blues,” by blues band Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women includes the lines:
     My fingers have turned purple,
     My master's like I chewed it,
     My mind is getting warped,
     From inhaling Ditto fluid.

April 17, 2014

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