Carbon Copies

For those of you mature enough to remember carbon copies, a little trip down memory lane.  For the rest of you, a little history lesson.


Once upon a time, before email, before laser printers, before computers, before word processors, letters and memos weren’t printed, they were “typed”.  There was a mechanical device called a “typewriter”.  The operator placed a sheet (or sheets) of paper into a thing called the roller and wound the paper into position.


The operator would press down on a button with a letter of the alphabet imprinted on it.  This would cause a metal lever, also called a key, with the corresponding letter, to spring up and strike against an ink-soaked, cloth ribbon, which was positioned directly in front of the roller.  The key would strike with enough force to transfer ink from the ribbon onto the paper.  As the key returned to its position in the “case”, the roller would move one space to the left, and the ribbon would wind one space over.


If the operator needed to use a capital letter, she (most operators were women) would depress a special button called a “shift”.  This would raise the entire case of keys so that the capital letter would be the one to strike the ribbon and paper.  If the operator needed to type numerous capital letters, she could choose to depress a “shift lock” which would lock the case in the upper position.  This is why small letters are called “lowercase” and capital letters are called “uppercase”.  (In fact, it was printers who kept capital letters in a box, or case, on an upper shelf and the smaller, more frequently used, letters in a box, or case, on a lower shelf.  The first typewriter was patented as a Personal Printer.)


If duplicate copies of the letter or memo were needed, this was accomplished by sandwiching special sheets of paper coated on one side with “carbon” between blank sheets of paper.  When the key struck the ribbon/paper, the force would cause the “carbon” to be transferred onto the blank sheet behind it.  This was called a “carbon copy” or “cc”.  (By the way, the “carbon” in carbon paper was no more carbon than the “lead” in a pencil was made of real lead.)


If the operator made a mistake, such as misspelling a word, an intricate ritual, involving erasers and small bits of leftover carbon paper ensued.


As more and more copies were needed, it took more force to transfer the carbon through to the last sheet.  So people started using lighter paper called a “flimsy” or “tissue”.  It actually was much like the kind of tissue paper used in wrapping gifts these days.  And it wasn’t long before some enterprising stationery maker started selling “carbon packs”.  These were a group of colored tissue papers with the carbon sheets already sandwiched inside and the whole group held together at the top by a tear-away header strip.


Different colored copies were directed in various ways.  The white copy might go back to the person who originated the letter.  The yellow copy might become the chronological copy (kept in date order for a few months in case it could not be found any other way than by date).  The green copy might become the file copy.  And the pink copy might go to the secretary of the boss who liked to read everyone’s correspondence.


All of this typing and creating various carbon copies meant that you could only get through a certain amount paperwork in a given day.  In addition, you had to wait for your letter or memo to reach its recipient.  This could take days in and of itself.  Then it might take several more days for the response to be dictated, typed, proofed and eventually mailed back to you.


Ah, the Good Old Days.


Today, everyone uses email.  Responses are virtually instantaneous.  People are far more productive.  And they’re wearing themselves out in the process.


Getting back to the typewriter:  If the operator typed too quickly, as one key was returning to its place in the case, and another was rising up to strike the ribbon/paper, they might get caught in a “key jam”.  To prevent this from happening, the typewriter manufacturers researched and developed a combination of keys deliberately designed to make typing more difficult and slow the operator down.  This is known as the standard “QWERTY” keyboard, so-called because the letters in the top row of keys, from left to right are Q, W, E, R, T, and Y.


Over time, the manufacturers solved this problem by creating an electronic typewriter that didn’t use keys.  Instead it used a metal ball that spun around, striking the ribbon/paper as it went along.  The roller and paper remained stationary and the typing ball did the moving. No more key jams.  And no more need for the QWERTY keyboard.


One manufacturer even came out with a new typewriter, one with a scientifically designed keyboard that optimized the operator’s time and meant less wear-and-tear on the operator’s hands.


They couldn’t sell it.  People who had learned how to type on a QWERTY keyboard didn’t want to have to learn the new one.  Even now, decades later, everyone still uses the QWERTY keyboard, the one designed to make typing more difficult because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.  And everyone does their own typing.  And with all the QWERTY wear-and-tear.


And life goes on…