The shape of the present casts its shadow on the future

I’ve been chasing mimeograph-related documents and information for a few months — not long in the scheme of things compared to those who’ve been at it for years, if not decades. Now and then something new turns up in my searches which are, of necessity, mostly online. There are one or two books available (I’ll post what I’ve found, shortly), a variety of scanned images ranging from advertisements to catalogs (as you can see by what I’ve included in the library already), some old auction posts about sales long-past, and a steady stream of things popping up on ebay.

There seemed to be only one Facebook group dedicated to mimeographs (the Mimeograph Users Group is a bit sleepy, but it’s worth looking at old posts to see what its members have been up to); only just today, though, in spite of a good portion of my Facebook searches relating to mimeographs and duplicators, I found another, Mimeomania. I’m not super impressed with the Facebook algorithms that only finally revealed this to me after a couple of months – but then, I’m not super impressed with Facebook in general, so nothing’s changed.

I had this moment of self-doubt upon finding the Mimeomania group – which probably speaks less to any issue with that group and more to my own issues and to this weird, re-inventing the wheel, fool’s-errand thing I’m doing here.

What am I doing? I like to think it’s nothing nearly as opportunistic as “get copies of all the things the collectors have collected and put them online” – but that’s kind of what it is. I like to think this will be useful to someone somewhere and somewhen – but maybe the only (few) people interested are finding all their answers in Facebook groups and those who don’t, give up on mimeograph machines in the end because they’re not easy anymore.

But then I think about why they’re not easy. And yes, this is coming from someone who’s not even yet tried one and no, I don’t mean it’s not easy to turn a crank handle, I mean there’s a massive, mountain-sized set of dilemmas right smack in any path that could convey mimeographs out of the past and into the present, let alone into the future.

Everyone who wants to use a mimeograph is half reliant on a past we can’t get back (those machines and their supplies were made in an era when they could be made; we don’t live in that era) and half reliant on a present that can’t see its way forward (the “old-timers” have valuable skills and information and those bits and bobs get parsed out individually, on a one-on-one basis, but then what?). What I mean by “the present can’t see its way forward” is that this dilemma-mountain casts a huge shadow (in addition to being, you know, really a challenging climb) so that we’re in the dark and trying to look beyond into a more deeply shadowed land. I’ve scrolled back through the Facebook groups’ messages and every newcomer asks the same questions: “How can I find the manual for this machine?” “What kind of ink should I use? How do I thin it?” “Where do I get inkpads?” and “What about stencils?” – the answers range from “they don’t exist,” or “I’ve heard so-and-so has a copy”, to “nobody makes them anymore” and “here’s how I’ve improvised.”

There are plucky explorers who go off-trail and try to contact once-known suppliers in India or China, or who send samples of materials to potential manufacturers, or who are messing around with chemicals in their garages. There are no encouraging reports coming back. There are the well-provisioned who are using up the last of the new-old-stock they bought 15 years ago, but after that, then what? Or there are those who have repurposed some sort of device (here I’m thinking of the thermal-stencil printer – a made-in-China electronic device) with its own series of weak links that at least can carry us further than our previous weak links could.

I’m not actually sure how helpful Mimeograph Revival is going to be if we don’t figure out how to manufacture — and not just manufacture, but teach each other how to manufacture — the critical components.

This makes me think that although mimeograph design “evolved” over the era in which they were in use, we can no longer kit-out the later-generation machines without recourse to digital/electronic inputs (not to mention energy intensive industrial manufacturing methods). Maybe that’s the true shadow that’s cast over the future. And maybe (though I can’t yet prove it) the way to get beyond that is to bypass the mountain and its requirements completely by going back to mimeographs’ beginnings – to Edison and Gestetner in the early days, and to what was being done before there were factories to do it.

I’ve seen a few references to DIY mimeograph machines and I’m trying to chase those references back to their sources so I can post them here. I’ll of course announce it if I do find such a thing, but in the meantime, I’ll be reading up on some Mimeograph history and reporting back on what I find.

By the way, if you’re here and you’re looking for something in particular, consider leaving a comment to tell me whether or not you found it so I can make Mimeograph Revival more helpful.

Mimeograph Revival