I thought I’d leave the Big Picture alone for a while to concentrate on the more mundane components of our carboniferous world. I’ll start a personal favorite – and one that will instantly date me as an old fogey: carbon paper.

Anyone remember it? It was a thin sheet of light-brown paper that you inserted between two sheets of paper, usually in a typewriter (remember those?). By pressing on the top sheet, called the ‘original,’ with a writing implement or striking it with key in the typewriter an exact copy could be imprinted on one or more sheets underneath. One side was coated with ink and bound with montan wax, which was derived from brown coal (more carbon). Montan was a high gloss type of wax used in shoe and car polish and phonograph records (remember those?).

The heyday of carbon paper occurred between the invention of the typewriter in 1868 and the development of the photocopying machine, which came into commercial use in 1959. Its principle purpose was to provide exact replicas – a carbon copy – of the original document for distribution to various recipients, who were identified on the page by the letters ‘cc.’ This, of course, is the source of the ‘cc’ we use today in our email correspondence.

I wonder if many young people today know the origin of the phrase “I’ll cc you on that.”

The first ‘carbonate paper’ was invented in England in 1806 in response to the introduction of the steel pen, which replaced the quill. In use for over one thousand years, the demise of the quill marked the end of what some historians call the ‘Age of Handwriting.’ The quality of the copies of this early carbonate paper, however, was not very good and the paper was not widely used. The courts, for example, refused to admit carbon copies as evidence in English trials.

It wasn’t until a promotional stunt for a grocery firm in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1870, involving a hot air balloon, that carbon paper took off. During an interview with the balloon pilot, Lebbeus Rogers, in the offices of the Associated Press, Rogers became very intrigued by the carbon paper being employed by the reporter. Quickly grasping its commercial potential, Rogers founded a company to produce carbonate paper and shortly made his first sale, to the U.S. War Department. But it wasn’t an office-friendly version of typewriter hit the market a few years later that carbon paper use zoomed.

The key ingredient in carbon paper is carbon black, which is created when a hydrocarbon, such as oil, is burnt to ashes (at 3000 degrees) in a special furnace, leaving a powdery residue. This residue was then mixed with water and spun in a centrifuge, which created almost pure carbon. It had many uses besides copying, including the manufacture of automobile tires and the ‘blacking’ of shoes. Charles Dickens worked in a ‘blacking’ factory as a boy – and lucky for us he didn’t contract a life-shortening illness from it!

Lebbeus Rogers also developed the first carbon-coating machine to make the paper (it had been a hand-made process until then). He also developed the first typewriter ribbons – which also employed carbon – and was the first to spool them onto reels and sell them in small boxes.

Inventions that lasted a century.

Carbon paper had a serious limitation, however. While it was extremely useful in copying outgoing correspondence and documents, it was useless in doing the same for incoming mail. As the volume of business correspondence grew in the first half of the 20th century, this limitation became acute. It was solved by – you guessed it – the invention of the photocopier. Photocopy toner, by the way – especially in the early days – used a lot of black carbon powder, often poured from a bottle into the machine (remember that?).

Many of these inventions were still in use, to one degree or another, up through the 1980s, until the Computer Revolution made them obsolete (though carbon paper continues to live on in the art world). I used carbon paper regularly and my graduating class from college was the last to use a typewriter – a fact that makes my children’s eyes grow big. Mine too. But I’m not sentimental in the least. I don’t miss for a second searching for typewriter ribbon in drawers or on the shelves of unfamiliar stores. And if you’ve ever used ‘White Out’ to correct mistakes made by a typewriter, you’re probably not very nostalgic for the old days either.

I love laptops – which have their own unique relationship to carbon.

Still, carbon paper is important because it was synonymous business and domestic correspondence the world over for nearly a century, demonstrating once again how dependent we are on this critical element of life.

The good old days?……

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