Oct 072017

On this date in 1806, Ralph Wedgwood, cousin to industrialist Josiah Wedgewood, received the first patent for carbon paper. His work, to some extent, duplicated (!) the work of Italian inventor Pellegrino Turri although the purposes of their independent inventions were quite different, and what eventually became carbon paper for typewriters was rather different from Wedgewood’s invention. Wedgewood was trying to help blind people write at a time when Braille writing was in the future (1821).

Wedgewood saturated thin paper with printer’s ink, and then dried it out between sheets of blotting paper. The dried “black paper” could then be placed between a tissue paper and a blank sheet of writing paper in Wedgwood’s “stylographic manifold writer.” A blind person could write between horizontal feeler wires on the apparatus. A metal stylus created a positive image on the lower sheet, as well as a mirror image on the upper tissue (which could also be read directly if the carbon paper was left underneath it).

It soon became apparent to Wedgwood that his “carbonated paper” could be used as an “apparatus for producing duplicates of writings.” Scottish engineer James Watt (steam engine engineer), had invented a tissue-copying process for business correspondence in 1779. But it required special inks and fluids and was a wet process for the user, so it didn’t catch on.  In 1808 Turri in Italy had complete work on a typewriter, also for use by the blind, and employed a form of carbon-impregnated paper as the ribbon.

Wedgwood marketed carbon paper, but it didn’t really catch on with business because there were two missing ingredients. First, Wedgewood’s carbon paper was two sided, which was unnecessary for making duplicates.  Single-sided carbon paper which did not require a special writing board and stylus came along around 1820. Second, carbon paper really came into its own in 1868 when Christopher Sholes received a patent for a machine that is the direct ancestor of the modern typewriter: http://www.bookofdaystales.com/birth-typewriter/  Carbon paper was the common way to make copies on a typewriter for around a century.  I used it when I first started typing in the late 1960s. By the 1970s it had been supplanted by the photocopying machine, and by the 1980s personal computers and printers took up the burden. I doubt that many people nowadays know that the abbreviation “cc” on emails stands for “carbon copy” nor do they know that the metaphor “carbon copy” (if anyone still uses it) had a literal meaning at one time.

For me, producing multiple identical copies of the same item or dish is anathema to my cooking style. I don’t plate up meals for my guests, making them all look the same, and even when I use muffin tins for things such as Yorkshire puddings they all come out looking different – and I like it that way. Professionals, on the other hand, whether it be a Michelin-starred chef making $300 plates or a fast food joint turning out cheeseburgers, have a commercial interest in replicating the same thing over and over. That’s not for me.  I don’t plate food usually because I want my guests to help themselves from common bowls, making their plates the way it suits them as individuals.

Where I do occasionally succumb is with cookie cutters – as a metaphor, a synonym for carbon copy, and can also be abbreviated “cc.”  I rarely use them for baked goods although at one time I had a whole drawer full of them. I prefer misshapen hand-dropped cookies to identical ones.  But when it comes to the garnishes for Japanese soups I still give in because my knife skills are not great.  Stainless steel cutters in the shape of flowers are very easy to use and delight guests, I find.  Cherry blossom, plum, and chrysanthemum were my favorites, but you can branch out as you choose.  Furthermore, if you like you can use these cutters for vegetables served any way you want. No skill required.