Why photocopies are called photocopies

My stepfather was managing the library of South Bank Polytechnic (as it was called then) back in the 1970s, when the college's first photocopier arrived.

It was a huge Xerox machine, and it had quite an impact. Previously, to make a copy of a page in a periodical or book, people had to use a machine to make a "photostat", which was printed on photographic paper. Literally, they took photographs of pages. This was an enormously expensive proceedure and consequently only used rarely. It's also why we continue to use the word "photocopy" to this day.

People who could not afford to make a photostat (which included most of the students, most of the time), were resigned to making their own notes from whatever page it was they wanted to refer to.

When the Xerox arrived on campus, it turned research upside down. Suddenly, making copies was vastly cheaper and much simpler. Long queues formed by the machine, and it was so over-used that it actually caught fire on more than one occasion.

The fact that it was repaired and put back into service shows how solid a machine it must have been. Imagine a modern photocopier catching fire - it would be a right-off pretty quickly.

The unfortunate fires kept happening. My stepfather talked to the head of the physics department, who agreed to get some students to build an air-conditioned shed for the Xerox to be housed in. The idea was that by keeping it and its surroundings cool, fires could be prevented.

The shed was duly constructed but it didn't work as planned. The machine caught fire yet again.

There was also the problem of educating people into the right way to use a photocopier. Some people, my stepfather relates with a wry smile, saw the machine as a licence to reprint their own copies of entire books. One student made an almost-complete copy of a well-used chemistry text, very illegally. It took some time to convey to students (and some staff) the finer points of copyright law.

Filed under: notes
(13th August 2004)