Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Carbon Copy

I wonder what – if anything – the “young folks” think that cc: means when they copy someone on an e-mail. Wait – let me correct that. “Young folks” aren’t using e-mail. So I wonder what – if anything – the “Xerox generation” thinks that cc: means when they copy someone on an e-mail. (And let’s not even get into bcc…)

Anyway, if the question has ever flitted across your brain, the answer, kids, is “carbon copy.”

Which, of course, leads to the follow on huh? – what does ‘carbon copy” mean.  Copy we get, but carbon? What’s that?

Oh, mes enfants, for those of you who’ve never used a typewriter, or had to manually fill out a form in quintuplicate, carbon – in this case – means carbon paper. Carbon paper is a thin sheet of paper. coated on one side with dry ink. It’s placed between the original and a second sheet (and maybe even a third, fourth, or fifth, if you hit the keys or bear down hard enough) so that you get copies of the original. Which was how we rolled before copy machines became ubiquitous in the 1970’s, let alone before personal computers and e-mail made it possible for us to send everything “online” so that people could print their own darned copies.

Except for my college-era office jobs – some of which involved filling in those quintuplicate manual forms – most of my experience with carbon paper is pre-professional. But I did have plenty of amateur jobs where we made carbon copies of the documents we typed. And let me assure you, it was a complete p.i.t.a. to make corrections on the cc’s.  I also had one spectacularly boring over-Christmas job in an insurance company, where I spent the better part of each day typing the letter “B” on carbon-ated forms.

Earlier on, we sometimes had carbon paper at home. Somehow, when you’re a kid, making copies of your scribblings is an amazingly fun thing to do.

(There was also something called “tracing paper”, thin, translucent paper that you could place on top of something and trace what’s beneath. I can’t remember whether she used carbon paper or tracing paper, but when I was very little my mother would occasionally make copies of pages from coloring books so that we all – which, at that point was just Kath, Tom, and me – could color the same page. It’s hard to imagine that my mother had the time to do this, but there you have it. At this point, we were living in a flat in my grandmother’s house that had so little hot water that my mother had to bring in kettles-full of warm water from the kitchen stove so that we wouldn’t freeze to death in the bath tub. The washing machine was one of those wringer-specials, and drying, needless to say, happened outside – except in winter, when my mother set up drying racks in the kitchen. The freezer compartment in the fridge could hold a couple of ice-cube trays and a pint of ice cream, so there was no stock-pile of frozen dinners. Sure, my mother did use some of the fabulous fifties convenience foods – Campbell’s soup and Kraft Dinner for lunch – but mostly she was whipping up three meals a day, from scratch. And yet, she still found time to trace pictures from coloring books so we could all color the same picture?  Thanks, Ma.)

I would have thought that carbon paper was something that was pretty much long gone.

But not yet. New York cops occasionally use carbon paper for evidence vouchers (using $1m-worth of new typewriters bought in 2008). A firm called Swintec supplies prisons in 44 American states with around 5,000 electronic typewriters annually (made with transparent plastic to hamper smugglers). Inmates must use carbon paper: the jails like copies of all outgoing post. Jim Gordon of Form-Mate, Canada’s last carbon-paper maker, recalls prisons’ “desperate” appeals after other suppliers went bust. (Source: The Economist.)

The business, however, is hanging on by carbon filament:

Survivors scoop up business as rivals go bankrupt. But they agree that trade is ailing. “I will die with it,” says Miles Murphy of York Haven, Britain’s last manufacturer, who is “staggered” that demand has lasted so long. From an annual 10,000 tonnes a year for Britain in 1990, he says, his output now struggles to reach 15 tonnes.

(You load 15 tonnes, what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt…)

India, with its old-fashioned bureaucracy, is a good market for carbon paper. And there are other uses.

Pigeon fanciers use it to log racing times in specially designed clocks. A blue, film-coated version checks the height of dental fillings; a heavy-duty black sort helps guide stonemasons’ chisels. Mr Murphy sells 40,000 sheets of red carbon paper every year to potters: it transfers drawings onto clay (when fired, the pigments vanish).

And then there are tattoo parlors, that use it to transfer designs onto skin.

Old products, it seems, may be harder to kill off than one might imagine. (The Economist even mentions demand for trebuchets… Why, that’s even before my time.)


A carbon-coated tip of the Pink Slip cc: cap to Rick T for suggesting this topic.

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