History How-to

The Pre-Hectographs, part 1: The State of Copying up to the Early Industrial Revolution

No, the pre-hectographs were not members of an art and cultural movement the way the pre-Raphaelites were. To our eyes they look simply like interim technologies, even like failures cast aside in the long winnowing process of time. But were they, ultimately? Will someone in the future decide to loop back around and pick one of these methods up, the way many of us in the digital age have looked back to mimeographs and hectographs and their offshoots, the spirit duplicators? Will they turn out, in the end, to be the vehicles of some future art and cultural movement? Only time will tell.

Who’s to say what constitutes a failed (or obsolete) technology when none of us know the full course of human endeavors far into the future?

Certainly some of the methods I came across as I searched through records for information on pre-hectograph (or contemporaneous) copying techniques look like failures. They fell out of use – or were never picked up at all – though their inventors pinned high hopes to them. But I don’t think they necessarily failed at anything more than an inability to stand out and get “picked up” in a time of intense technological innovation.

Ok, one or more of them probably failed because they were far too complex to either make or use; here I point to the “pantograph” as patented by Henry Neumeyer in 1856, which, unlike its namesake, the pantograph invented by Heron of Alexandria in the first century AD (replica pictured here) complexified something relatively simple…

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The pantograph was modified in 1631 by Christoph Scheiner, a German astronomer.

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It was reconfigured by Claude Langlois in 1744, with this iteration refining the ultimate in simple tools designed to complete a complex job (of making a copy of an original drawing perfectly to scale), seen here,

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Compare those, then, to Neumeyer’s pantograph that looked like this:

screenshot from patent

and this

screenshot from patent

I can’t make heads or tails of it, honestly, other than to note that a writing implement is connected through gears to… other things.

I don’t think it was widely manufactured and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was because of its extreme complexity.

Basically, for as much of pre-industrial human history as we know about, copying texts was a human-scale skill in that it required the direct copying effort (as in, a re-creation of the original) on the part of either the originator or a person trained as a scribe, copyist, or a clerk to do the same. Of course students of many subjects and at various levels of mastery copied texts for their own use, or in the case of images, the act of copying existing works of art was itself a training exercise. Actually the same is true of texts – writing out passages by hand has long been recognized as a useful way to train the mind as well as the eye and the hand – but when the desired result is a copy for a copy’s sake, it’s rather slow going.

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A momentary interlude – into the fine arts

As late as 1799, several methods were available to artists who wished to copy prints and engravings or perhaps their own work for reuse. That year’s edition of The Laboratory; or School of the Arts -containing a large collection of valuable secrets, experiments, and manual operations in arts and manufactures gives details (p.36).*

It is the second method of the volume that might be of interest to stencil-duplicating experimenters, as it hews very close to that method though it veers off at the end. Essentially, the same process is followed to achieve a tracing, then, the tracing is punctured along the drawn lines with a sharp needle attached to a stick (to avoid poking your finger) so that a clean sheet of paper below it is also lightly punctured. That sheet is then rubbed with “finely powdered charcoal, with a little stump, or roller, made up of a narrow slip of cloth, or flannel” – this provides an outline that can then be drawn over with ink. Where this might be useful from a stencil standpoint is if the punctured tracing can serve the stencil’s function, allowing the charcoal to fall through to the page below – of course the page below need not be punctured in that case.

The remaining three methods involve two types of what amounts to homemade carbon paper (one prepared with “vermilion or black lead dust, mixt with a little fresh butter” and the other with lampblack mixed also with butter). The third calls for “lanthern horn” – sheets of thinly sliced cow horn traditionally used as panes in lanterns (actually available here) – upon which a design could be traced or drawn in India ink to then be breathed upon several times and, thus moistened, transferred in reverse to a moistened sheet of paper.

It seems unlikely that any of us will have vermilion, black lead dust, or thinly-sliced cow horn on hand, though lampblack (soot) might make an appearance; so these recipes are probably of limited value and are presented here mostly to appease historical curiosity. (Actually, maybe my curiosity isn’t totally appeased. I am considering a later post on the various types of carbon paper I’ve come across…)

The ages-old method of hand-copying text changed as the Industrial Revolution (1760 to about 1840) prompted most of its sufferers into a frenzy of productivity that stimulated mechanical and chemical experimentation. This resulted in James Watt’s copy press and eventually the hectograph.

But first, to trace the earlier signs of some of that experimentation, we turn to W. B. Proudfoot’s The Origin of Stencil Duplicating, where we learn that John Evelyn’s diary mentions an ink developed by 1655 that would “give a dozen copies when moist sheets of paper were pressed to it” (pp.18-19). No other details are given; there’s no mention of the use of a press or the type of paper utilized, and unfortunately, the ink recipe is not included.

Later, other copying inks would be developed, including this simple version described in 1881, employing the use of glycerin – a product discovered only in 1779 and thus not available to our 1655 ink-maker.

We might be able to infer that, minus James Watt’s 1780 invention of the copy press and the 1881 author’s use of glycerin-infused ink, the overall method employed by the 1655 copyist was similar to later developments in its use of slow-drying ink, dampened papers, and manual pressure, perhaps applied by hand; however, it was Watt’s invention (and his specialized ink) that changed the nature of copying tremendously.

We’ll pick up with Watt in the next post and explore the method of copying he invented and that was put into use around the world, with an eye toward recovering that and other pre-hectographic duplicating methods.

screenshot from – public domain image depicting James Watt’s copying press.


*Hat-tip to Joyce Godsey, proprietor of Time Traveller’s Rabbit Hole, who shared this gem See also her facebook group, here. Earlier versions of this book (1750 and 1770) do not include the copying methods.


Online sources cited above.

For a timeline-derived overview with images, please see The Early Office Museum’s Antique Copy Machines page.

Printed text:

Proudfoot, W. B. 1972. The Origin of Stencil Duplicating. Hutchinson and Co., Ltd.: London.

Mimeograph Revival