Carbon-Based Life

By | August 17, 2015

I was recently given a gift subscription to Mental Floss magazine (in print) which is one of those miscellanies of random information that I can’t help but find endlessly fascinating. (The magazine also earned my utmost respect in December 2013 when they scored an interview with Bill Watterson, who, since ending the great Calvin & Hobbes, has become the J.D. Salinger of cartooning.) I occasionally check out the magazine’s website, and a couple of months ago there was a curious little listicle called “15 Common Expressions Younger Generations Won’t Understand,” which is one of those clickbaity attempts at making me feel old by pointing out that common phrases such as “hanging up a phone,” “dialing a phone,” “rolling up a window,” etc., are anachronistic terms that no longer accurately describe what it is they do.

The trouble is, the way technology changes—and has always changed—means that you could go back 20 years, or to any era, and find expressions that became equally archaic. Technology changes faster than language. (Look through any Adobe Creative Suite application’s menus sometime and you’ll see that many commands took the name of graphic arts terms that are likewise technologically obsolete. Photoshop’s Unsharp Mask, for example. When’s the last time anyone used an actual unsharp mask? What’s a pasteboard? (And we don’t use actual paste when we paste something.) Screening? Even terms like “upper- and lowercase” letters are, strictly speaking, archaic.

I do, however, take exception to the notion that “clockwise” is somehow an outdated term. Oh, come on; they still make analog clocks. Certainly younger generations occasionally wander into a Target or a bank, or look up at a clock tower. Big Ben has not gone digital just yet.

One that I will grant them is the term “cc” when referring to email that is copied to other recipients. “Cc” in this context obviously stands for “carbon copy” referring to carbon paper which, in the days before the photocopier, was how documents were copied. (Even in 1990, when I began my post-collegiate career at a New York City book publisher, we were still using carbon paper, largely because the cut-rate photocopiers we were using were always broken.) The process, you may recall (or be horrified to discover), went something like this: in between two sheets of blank paper you inserted a third sheet (the carbon paper) that had one side coated with some kind of ink or pigment. When you wrote or typed on the top sheet, pressure transferred the ink or pigment to the second blank sheet, and you had a copy. You could insert a few sheets of carbon paper between several blank sheets if you needed to make more than one copy, although after a few layers, the bottommost copies got progressively lighter.

Believe it or not, they still do make and sell carbon paper, although there are few uses for it anymore. (Some credit card slips still use carbons.) True carbon paper was replaced first by carbonless paper, then by photocopiers. Now with word processing and desktop printers, we rarely need to copy originals anymore. In fact, it could be argued that there aren’t originals anymore—or it could be that every copy is an original. (I think I shall lie down for a moment.)

Carbon paper was invented as part of a “Stylographic Writer,” patented in 1806 by Ralph Wedgwood, an English inventor and potter. Yes, “potter”; that isn’t a typo or Autocorrectism. Wedgewood’s main claim to fame was inventing things for the ceramics industry, but he borrowed £200 to develop what he later called the Noctograph. The carbon paper—or, as he called it, “carbonated paper” (there’s an amusing mental image for you)—was just one part of the system. The paper, both sides of which were coated with ink and then dried, was placed between two blank sheets, then clipped to a metal board. You wrote on it with a metal stylus, and the bottom sheet was the original, while the top sheet—with the writing on the bottom—was the copy, albeit with the writing reversed. It also had guides to help keep the writing straight. Wedgewood designed it to help the blind write, although it also found favor among the sighted who used it to write in the dark. By Wedgwood’s estimate, in seven years, he made £10,000 in profits from the Noctograph. He later toyed with an idea for a system that could write the same thing in multiple places simultaneously, sort of a proto-telegraph/fax machine, but alas it never came to fruition.

(A side note: the person from whom Wedgwood borrowed the £200 was Josiah Wedgwood II, the son of his cousin and business partner. Josiah and his brother Thomas were good friends with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and supported him financially so that Coleridge could dedicate himself to his poetry without having to muck about with “uncreative endeavors” like earning a living. Xanadu, indeed.)

Anyway, a prominent user of the Noctograph was James Holman, the so-called “Blind Traveler” who, despite being, indeed, completely blind, was a British adventurer who traveled the globe—at a time when such journeys were rare even among the sighted—and wrote extensively about his exploits. (He got around using what has been called “human echolocation”—yes, Holman was a little batty.)

Another famous Noctographer was an American named William H. Prescott. While a student at Harvard, he took part in a food fight and was hit in the eye by a crust of bread, which permanently damaged his eyesight. (That’s gotta be embarrassing.) He never went totally blind, but the condition got worse over time. Still, Prescott went on to become one of the most celebrated and respected historians of the 19th century, specializing in Spanish history. Shortly after graduating college, he began a series of travels, and spent some time in London, staying with renowned English vascular surgeon Astley Cooper and oculist William Adams, the latter of whom introduced him to the Noctograph.

Prescott and his Noctograph became as inseparable as…well, as inseparable as the iPhone and the young folks who have no idea what “cc” means.


Arika Okrent, “15 Common Expressions Younger Generations Won’t Understand,” Mental Floss,

“James Holman,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 5, 2015, accessed June 19, 2015,

“William H. Prescott,” Wikipedia, last modified on May 24, 2015, accessed June 19, 2015,

“Ralph Wedgwood (inventor),” last modified on April 29, 2015, accessed June 19, 2015,


Share this post


One thought on “Carbon-Based Life

Comments are closed.