Retrotechtacular: The Incredibly Difficult Task of Copying a Document

It seems hard to imagine, but in the early part of the 20th century, there weren’t a lot of great options for creating copies of documents. The most common method was to use carbon paper to create multiple copies at once from a typewriter or a line printer. All that changed with a company called Haloid. Never heard of them? They later became the Xerox company.

The underlying technology dates back to 1938 (invented by a physicist who was also a lawyer). In 1944, they produced a practical copier and shortly thereafter sold the rights to Haloid. The Haloid company originally made photographic copy machines that used wet chemistry.

In 1959, the Xerox 914 (so called because it could copy a 9″ x 14″ document) came on the scene (that’s it, below). The 650 pound copier could make seven copies per minute and came with a fire extinguisher because it had a tendency to burst into flames. If you didn’t want to spend the $27,500 price tag, you could rent for only $25/month (keep in mind that in 1959, $25 would buy about 25 pounds of T-bone steaks). You can see a commercial for the 914 in the video below.


In the commercial, you’ll see them make a big deal out of the fact that the print was dry. That’s because a lot of previous machines used actual photographic processes with wet chemistry. Obviously, that also took special paper.

Even Further Back

If the copier didn’t exist until recently, how did people make copies before? Turns out there were lots of ways to make copies of varying degrees of bad quality or extreme trouble. In some sense, the best copies were made by scribes just writing down a second copy of things. There were a variety of machines that would capture what you wrote and make a copy by mechanical or other means. A polygraph (not the lie detecting kind) allowed Thomas Jefferson to write letters and make a copy. The machine moved a pen to match the movements of the author’s pen, thus making a near perfect copy. With a few adjustments, this became the pantograph which not only does the same job, but also can shrink or enlarge the copy. Carbon paper was widely used to make multiple copies of handwritten and typewritten documents.

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Homemade 3D Carving Duplicator

[Frank] is a guitar builder and has to make a quantity of acoustic guitar bridges that wouldn’t make sense to do manually by hand each time. He wanted a way of duplicating bridges quickly and precisely but he didn’t want to go to a CNC machine. Instead, he build a 3D duplicating machine.

The machine has 3 perpendicular axes, just like a milling machine. Mounted to the Z Axis is an air powered spindle that can reach 40,000 RPM. All 3 axes are moved by the operators hands. Normally, free-hand cutting something like this would be very difficult. [Frank’s] solved this in his machine by using a stylus that is offset from the cutting bit. The stylus is the same effective length and diameter of the cutting bit and is guided over a finished bridge pattern. While the stylus is tracing the pattern, the spindle and bit are removing material from a bridge blank. The stylus is continually moved over the entire pattern bridge until the spindle is finished carving out a new bridge out of the blank.

To aid in lifting the heavy Z Axis and spindle, [Frank] added a counter balance to make tracing the pattern extremely easy. Once the new bridge is carved, it only requires minor sanding to remove the tool marks before being installed on a guitar! [Frank] admits his linear bearings and rails are very rigid but also very expensive. If you’re interested in a less-expensive 3D duplicator, check out this project.

Automated CD ripper build from Lego and other parts

[Paul Rea] decided it was finally time to get rid his CD and DVD library by ripping the data onto a hard drive. He has a rather extensive collection of discs and didn’t relish the thought of ripping them one at a time. So he set to work building his own automatic CD ripper/duplicator.

Right off the bat he had several specifications for the build. He wanted it to be platform independent, reliable, and cheap to build. We think he really hit the mark, but he does mention that he’s got a second duplicator build in mind already. This version makes heavy use of Lego parts for the arm and gearing. The base has a stepper motor which swings the arm in an arc which reaches the input pile, the optical drive try, and the output bin. The arm itself has a two-part wooden gripper that is positioned over a CD and uses a limiting switch to sense when the vertical orientation is at the proper point for gripping a disc. We enjoyed reading his log as he discusses the various building challenges he encountered and how each was overcome.

We’ve seen a few other builds like this before. One of our favorites is from way back.

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