10 April 2012


For this year's A-Z challenge, I'm posting juicy tidbits of researchy goodness for your interest and edification. I intend to use these as story prompts for the terrifying writing challenge Story a Day in May. You may use them however you wish.

Once upon a time, copying a document was a matter of re-writing it out by hand, or going through an expensive and difficult process of typesetting. For a single person, duplicating and distributing multiple copies of a document in short order was impossible (although in 1780 James Watt kludged a single-copy process involving pressing damp tissue paper onto a handwritten document, as did I when I was six and bored and playing with magic markers).

Enter William Perkin. While trying to create synthetic quinine in 1856, Perkin was cleaning out one of his flasks. The gunk in the flask turned bright mauve when he mixed it with alcohol. Thus mauveine, the first synthetic organic chemical dye, was created. (Wiki)

This was important for two reasons: one, it changed the 1862 fashion season when Queen Victoria wore a gown dyed with Perkin's mauve.

Mauveine dress, circa 1870-73

According to Kinky Graphic Design History, the same dye appeared on a penny postage stamp, and simply everywhere.


More pertinently to this post, Robyn Tait, writing for the Bulletin of the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material, notes that Perkin's dye had the right chemical properties for a transferable ink. Soon upon the heels of this discovery, the jellygraph, also known as the gelatin duplicator or hectograph (for its supposed ability to produce a hundred copies), was born.


The jellygraph was a precursor to the Ditto machines that, if you're of the right vintage like me, or if you grew up in a school district that was limited in its technologies, you'll remember your teachers using to produce copies of tests and whatnot. Remember that purple ink? That's Perkin's mauve, although the Ditto machine used a different technology to transfer the ink.

If you've had a tattoo, your artist might have used a transfer to get the design onto your skin. The ink was probably purple - also Perkin's mauve.

The jellygraph is especially fascinating because if you have access to Perkin's mauve or some other aniline dye and a source of gelatin, you can make one yourself in a tray. In other words, you can gain somewhat easy access to a duplication device that is completely disposable. WWII Prisoners at Stalag Luft III and Colditz Castle used jellygraphs to copy documents so they could plan their escape. I can think of all kinds of situations where a jellygraph might come in handy.

Make yours today!


Gina Gao said...

This is a great post! I really like your blog!

Mark K said...

It's like being back at school. This was a great one, and I've learnt something new into the bargain!
Do I get to call you 'Miss', now?

Kyra Lennon said...

Great info! I'd never heard of a jellygraph before!

Deborah Walker said...

Oooh I like this post. Good work, Elizabeth.

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Really? See, I never knew any of this stuff. And it was actually interesting - LOL!!!!!
Elizabeth! Magnetawanish? Wow! I used to live up the road a bit, near Sundridge. My husband lived there his whole life.
I used to love the Magnetawan Inn - did you ever order a hamburger there? It would come with a happy face made out of mustard. So awesome! I was devastated when that dumbass burned it down.
Anyway, glad to properly meet you and, honestly, that jellygraph thing was too cool for school - and, yeah, I am definitely old enough to remember the ditto - boy, those tests smelled GOOD!

S. L. Hennessy said...

wow, that's really cool. I've never heard of a jellygraph before, but now that I have I kind of want one...
Great post and happy A-Z blogging!

Elizabeth Twist said...

Thanks Gina!

Elizabeth Twist said...

Please, it's Professor or at least Doctor Twist. I've got the degrees to back that up.

Elizabeth Twist said...

Hiya! Didn't those tests smell good? Ha ha. I'm going to leave a message about the 'Wan over at your place.

Elizabeth Twist said...

You can make your own! That video shows you how. Gelatin, glycerin, and time on your hands is all you need.

Janyce said...

That was fascinating. I've never heard of a jellygraph before. I remember the purple ink from the Ditto machine. I can still remember the smell. The teacher would pass out the paper fresh off the press and I'd spend the first few minutes sniffing it. LOL!

Elizabeth Twist said...

Right, Janyce, I guess we were all paper sniffer back then.

(p.s. don't know if you'll be back this way to see this, but you should hook your blog if you have one up to your Blogger profile so people can return the favour and drop in at your place.)

Jocelyn Rish said...

Fascinating! It's crazy how many common-place things were discovered by accident! My elementary/middle school made copies that way, and I remember it smelled so good.

And although I'd never actually want to wear that mauve dress (so hot!), it's gorgeous!

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

we live in a great time of the world when as writers we can duplicate things so quickly and so readily and without breaking the bank. But I doubt the RIAA and SOPA backers would agree. Are things too easily duplicated now? hmmmm