Makin' Copies: the Complete History

Ransom Riggs

My friend Diana Rooks wrote this fun piece on the history of carbon copies, which originally appeared in History Magazine back in August '06. It was so interesting that I wanted to share it with our readers. Read on!

From the development of the typewriter in the 1870s until the emergence of photocopy machines in the 1960s, carbon paper was an indispensable office supply. The smudge-prone substance on the back of the paper was actually printer's ink, not graphite. The term "carbon" was, however, an accurate reference to carbon black, the standard color of ink.

Englishman Ralph Wedgwood and Italian Pellegrino Turri developed the first manifestations of carbon paper independently around the same time. In 1806, Wedgwood patented a composition aid for the blind, the stylographic writer. The device replaced the standard quill with a metal stylus and substituted a sheet of carbon paper in place of liquid ink. The carbon paper was placed between two pieces of stationery and slid between metal guide wires. Pressure from the metal stylus left impressions of the writer's penmanship on the bottom sheet of paper, which became the original document. The top piece of paper, meant to keep the writer's hand clean, picked up a mirror image copy of the manuscript on its underside. When Wedgwood's intended market showed little interest, he modified the stylographic writer and repackaged it as a document copier.

By at least 1808, Pellegrino Turri had also developed carbon paper as a composition aid for the blind — specifically, his ladyfriend, Countess Carolina Fantoni. He built a machine, not unlike a mechanical typewriter, that allowed the Countess to correspond with him without dictating her innermost thoughts to a third party.

Initially, the only professionals who had much commercial use for carbon paper were journalists for the Associated Press. They bought their supplies from American Cyrus P. Darkin, beginning in 1823. Other businessmen feared that the new technology would facilitate forgery.

Around 1870, a grocery manufacturer noticed a sheet of carbon paper in the hands of an AP reporter and decided to form a new company. L.H. Rogers & Co. saw the demand for its carbon paper skyrocket a few years later as the Remington typewriter came into widespread use. The typewriter struck the paper hard enough to quickly produce both a professional-looking original document and a legible duplicate beneath a sheet of carbon paper.

It became common practice for businesses to compose every outgoing form in triplicate, using two sheets of carbon paper to create three copies. Soon, retailers found it convenient to create instant copies of receipts, invoices, money orders, checks, and other financial records. For more than 80 years, carbon paper was the cheapest and most essential tool for making copies.

Three innovations were responsible for removing carbon paper from desk drawers. Photocopying came into vogue in 1959, with the perfection of the Xerox Model 914. the copy machine enabled businesses to make an unlimited number of copies of not only outgoing documents, but incoming documents as well. Around the same time, office supply companies developed carbonless paper. Treated with chemicals that changed color under pressure, carbonless paper replaced its messier antecedent in most retail transactions. The yellow "customer copy" of some credit card receipts is an example of carbonless paper.

Despite the encroaching technologies, carbon paper remained useful as long as businesses continued to use typewriters. However, the advent of word processors in the late 1970s accelerated carbon paper's descent into obsolescence.

Perhaps in deference to a technology they replaced, most e-mail programs allow the author to send a carbon copy, or cc, to a secondary recipient.