Sunday, April 08, 2012

Printing with a Gestetner - My First Book

Too many everyday tasks don't get described, and it's easy to forget how things were done only a few years ago. Well, 40 years ago. What details will people want to read in our work in 40 years from now?

When I first started teaching in schools in 1970, all school reports had to be handwritten with a fountain pen - no ball-points allowed. And no Liquid Paper. However, if an error was made, you could often get away with it by using 'correction fluid'. This consisted of a 'bleach' and a neutraliser in separate bottles. You dabbed on the solutions with applicator brushes. The trouble was, if you used too much of one of them, the paper dissolved, forming a hole. You then had to go around all other staff, confess, and ask each person who had written on the original copy to fill in a new one. Some colleagues smiled and obliged, while others were grumpy.

At the end of the term, it was also necessary to enter all subject marks on to a large master spread sheet (piece of paper) for each year group of about 120 students. Again, no corrections were allowed. This time, if you did have a lapse in concentration, you had to copy out the full sheet again with every child's name and their marks and position in class for every subject, as well as your own. There was therefore a rush to fill your own records on to the sheet before other staff entered theirs, for there'd be less to copy if you made an error. Stress, stress...

The worst thing was using a Gestetner machine for printing exam papers and worksheets. This used very permanent ?oil-based back ink. Gestetner 'skins' or stencils consisted of a waxed layer of mulberry paper on a thin cardboard backing to help typing. (You first had to remove the ribbon from the typewriter, and as you pregressed, the small hollows in e's and similar letters filled with wax, so you had to keep scrubbing them clean with a stiff brush). If you typed with too much pressure, you completely cut letters or bowls of p's and d's out of the master sheet, so when it was used for printing, the result was a series of black blobs. At the end of creating the stencil, you had produced 'perforated' letters through which the ink would be squeezed. This master was wrapped around a drum on the printer. If you were skilled/lucky you could prime the ink and print without too much trouble - but then you had to remove the inky master from the drum. If you were very fortunate, you could throw it away and avoid ruining all the clothes you were wearing - but if you wanted to keep the master for further use, you could attempt to reattach it to the backing by means of the ink layer. Doing this, transporting the sheets and storing them, and later sifting through your collection, opening them up and reattaching them to the machine, all while keeping yourself clean, was close to impossible.

Photos could be drum scanned on to the master by another machine - one that produced a spark which presumably melted the wax. The printed image was never of the quality you hoped for.

If you wanted to draw or handwrite on the stencil, you had to use a stylus or tool with a small spiked wheel at the tip - tricky, and no result from that prodedure was ever perfect, either.

Ah, the bad old days!

But the ability to print multiple copies cheaply was the catalyst for me to write books. I loved writing and creating information booklets for student use. The school managed a small nature reserve, and my first book was a guide to the distinguising features of the plants that could be found there, and their folklore. It was produced for visitors to the reserve, but was later published by the Hertfordshire and Middlesex Trust for Nature Conservation (1978):

The text was typed with an Olivetti Lettra 32 portable typewriter, the pen and ink drawings for the illustrations glued on and then the printing master created directly from these  ... I love my computer, scanner and laser printer!

Peter Taylor

No comments: