Ditto Technology: Implications for Learning

Humans as copiers

Much can happen at a school copier: plans made, gossip spread, discussions had, meetings set. Photocopiers are unique social junctions within schools, and important academic intersects between teachers and students. At the least, copying technologies offer functional ease. They also offer comfort in that something important will not disappear into the abyss of content – having a copy means the item and all embodied ideas will last when the original moves forward. For those who make it life’s work to nurture ideas, comfort resides in knowing a good resource can be captured for future use. Teachers are born copiers. They see new ideas and may wish to use them directly, or adapt and modify. Department meetings and professional development courses are often enhanced by direct exchange of ideas and resources. At a busy, condensed conference, the phrase “Don’t worry, you’ll get a copy of this”, can evoke sighs of relief. Training schools often require developing teachers to watch experienced ones in action so absorption, reflection and emulation can occur. Moreover, private markets pay well for quality material that works effectively in classrooms. Some teachers create material for support websites, the express reason being that resources can be bought, copied and used in some manner that fits buyer needs. Pedagogical values are passed from teacher to student, and within educational communities. As historian David Owen remarks, “Copying is the engine of civilization: culture is behaviour duplicated” (Owen, 2004). The development and historical context of one pre-computerized copying technology, the spirit duplicator or Ditto Machine, and its impact on education is interesting to consider in light of this human desire to obtain and retain information.

What is a ‘Ditto Machine’?

To understand this technology, one should consider the adjective used to describe ‘machine’. ‘Ditto’ is traditionally used to mimic or connect with what has been said – a type of verbal, cognitive shortcut.  Italian in origin, the term has deep historical roots, originating from Latin ‘dictus’, meaning ‘said’ (Harper 2001-2012). In order to avoid repetition of the month, an early example may read, ‘Julian was born May 23rd, and was christened 30th ditto’. In a more modern context, controversial American radio host and political commentator, Rush Limbaugh, known for his outspoken conservative views, includes a segment on his show, as pictured on his website, called ‘Dittohead Nation’. ‘Ditto heads’ are known for espousing similar socio-political ideology to Limbaugh, at times using ‘ditto’ to copy previous callers’ ideas or praise for the show, thereby increasing on-air time. From its earliest uses, the intention, ironically, was to avoid repetition, however over time the term has become synonymous with agreement and direct dissemination of material.

Ditto machines, known in the United Kingdom as the Banda machine and in different countries by the manufacturers’ names, rely on chemicals and master sheets for copying processes, as did the later derivative, the spirit duplicator. The two names (‘Ditto’ and ‘spirit’) can appear confusing as the terms are often used interchangeably in research papers and other academic materials.

Technically, Ditto technology from the early 20th century used ink, gelatin, a master copy and intense pressure to impress the copy against a hard copying surface, whereas spirit duplicators used master copies and included alcohol-based liquid chemicals to give the ink impression a more lasting quality (Early Office Museum). A commonality between the technologies is the use of chemical process to cement copies to print.

The Process

Figure 1: A retired Ditto Machine

Ditto Machine

To make a copy, the machine was turned on, checked for ink and chemical levels, and masters inserted against the drum. The original was carefully aligned and smoothed face down against a cylindrical copying surface, one that the original would wrap around in order to absorb the aniline dyes from master copies placed against the original. The master and original, united and pressed against the cylindrical surface, would spin with high pressure and produce long lasting albeit slightly blurred copies in multiple colors, but often a unique shade of purple. The copying process would start by turning a hand crank (see Figure 1) or adjustable knob, and production was fairly loud but quick. Click here to see a full set of copies run through A.B. Dick Model 215. Ditto technology inventor Wilhelm Ritzerfeld was issued his patent in 1964, nearly 50 years ago after his 1923 innovation. This copying technology was a heavy but portable metal machine that could produce short-run copies; the ditto machine was an ‘ideal medium’ for batches of 100 copies, a functional fact that made the technology useful to classroom teachers (Verry, 1953, p. 313). In reference to chemical use within the process, Steve Brower, international director of popular Ditto manufacturer A.B. Dick Co., notes, “It was a very wasteful process” (Virgin, 2002, para10). With any technology comes progress and challenge, and this was the case with early copying technologies.

Ditto or spirit technology was clearly not the first of copying technology. 18-19th century letter copying presses portable book presses were only two of many duplication processes available, along with mimeograph and lithograph technology (Early Office Museum). The first acts of copying print onto another material preceded Johannes Gutenberg’ pivotal printing press invention, reaching far back to the Chinese Tang dynasty; copying visions, ideas, warning and rules on structural walls reaches back further to 6th century Egypt (State Master, 2003). Ditto technology reflects only one stage of the innovation that preceded and would follow it, specifically in regards to Chester Carlson’s highly competitive but expensive invention in xerography, but it was Ditto technology that had a profound impact on student interaction with text.

Impact on learning and culture  

When a student receives a photocopy, there can be an immediate perception of importance attached to the item – the tangible carrying greater weight than the spoken. Technologies themselves are artificial but they are not simply exterior aids; they have transformative power over inner consciousness and personal perception (Ong, 1982, pp. 81-2).  Copying technology allowed once distanced text that remained in school to become personalized to students. Ong speaks of the ‘mechanical contrivance’ inherent to musical technologies (p. 82), so consider also the organic message sent to students when teachers expended the effort to produce rare pungent copies. It was unaffordable to run countless copies as schools operated on constrained budgets and within limited access to the machines (Lawn & Grosvenor, 2001, p. 119). If students could take copies home more regularly, and the copies embodied a novelty factor and synaesthesia through site and smell, it is intuitive that students would engage on a more personal, reflective level with the content and learning process. Julia Mckelvey, an English drama teacher, remembers, “The kids loved it when you gave them out banda-copied papers as they had the lovely smell of the spirit used to copy the sheets and they were also slightly damp when they came out of the machine” (personal communication, October 16, 2012). Having one’s own copy of content made the learning personal, and of course more technologically advanced. Keeping in mind that in the early to mid 20th century, it was not possible to make vast bundles of copies due to the tendency of schools to have one or two machines due to cost, being able to hand out materials to students enabled teachers to move through core content more quickly as it could be revised at home, and the process allowed for development and experimentation with new learning activities (Lawn & Grosvenor, p. 121). The pivotal development of Chester Carlson’s xerography technology would complicate this as copies could be run off more quickly, more cheaply and more often. Some educationalists have critiqued teacher use of the technology in that photocopying can become environmentally unfriendly and at times an unimaginative crutch for teachers to lean on as they busy students with passive, superficially processed worksheets (Faris, 1989, p. 148). The worry Faris (1989) notes is that with copying technology, the perception of learning can halt when the worksheet is ‘done’, turning what should be active questioning and thinking into a passive chore to get through. Ditto machines, however, did not entirely fit this era of criticism as copies were a relatively limited commodity in schools – for many of those who recall the technology, it was special to receive a copy and that perception made the engagement with reading and writing more personal and reflective.


Pre-photocopying technologies allowed students the freedom to take work home and experience individualized learning. Ong notes, the intelligence is ‘relentlessly reflexive’, absorbing what surrounds it in a process of internalization (1982, p. 80). Learning became more individualize and internalized due to the ability to engage independently. Copies allowed parents to see assessment practice, and how content was delivered. Ditto machines occupied a special moment in educational history not only because they preceded the onslaught of xerography, an innovation that would drastically change curricular delivery, but because the act of creating and processing the product signalled dedication to learning.




 Curator (2001-2012). Early Office Museum. Retrieved from:  http://www.officemuseum.com/

 Harper, D (2001-2012). Online Etymological Dictionary. Retrieved from: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=ditto&searchmode=none

 Lawn, M & Grosvenor, I (2001). When in doubt, preserve: Exploring the traces of teaching and material culture in English school. Journal of the History of Education, 30 (2), pp. 117-127. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00467600010012418

 Ong, W. J. (1982). Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the World. New York, NY: Routledge.

 Owen, D. (2004) Copies in Seconds. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Inc.

 Verry, H.R. (1953) Photocopying and Duplicating Processes. Aslib Proceedings, 5, 313-315. Retrieved from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/eb049490

 Virgin, B. (2002, October 17). Opinion: The Ditto is Dead, and Few Mourn its Passing. The Seattle Post. Retrieved from: http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/The-ditto-is-dead-and-few-mourn-its-passing-1098579.php


Hyperlink Citations

 Li, B. (2012, January 10) AB Dick Model 217 Spirit Duplicator . Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B979xBnk2Hg


Limbaugh, R. (2012, October 6). Elected Democrat Won Over by This Show [webpage]. Retrieved from: http://www.rushlimbaugh.com/


Anonymous. (2012, October 2) Illegal Immigrant Dittohead Does the Thinking Americans Won’t Do Pt 1. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=updtUy5NCcM&feature=relmfu

 Anonymous. (2010, October 22). A. B. Dick Spirit Duplicator Model 215. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pM5nEp48dsw&feature=related

 Ritzerfeld, W. (1962, December 17) Google Patents. Retrieved from: http://www.google.com/patents?id=zIBbAAAAEBAJ&printsec=abstract&zoom=4#v=onepage&q&f=false



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