The March Of Technology

A few ads from 1910 (click to enlarge):

When I started my first full-time job as an engineer, in the spring of 1987, all of our drawings were blueprinted. Most of our projects were new buildings, for which the original drawings were created by drawing with pencils on mylar; for some renovation projects we would receive architectural plans as sepia prints, which were sort-of erasable using a foul-smelling chemical called eradicator, and which served as the backgrounds for our drawings.

Blueprinting was a form of crude photography, using paper with a light-sensitive coating as the printing medium and ammonia as developer. Blueprints smelled of ammonia and large amounts of blueprints reeked of it. Getting a large roll of drawings from the printer meant spending some time with your nose burning. The experience of getting a bit dizzy from the smell was an unexpected reprise of smelling mimeographs in elementary school, but was otherwise without merit. I do not know any architect, engineer, or contractor who dealt with blueprints who is sorry that they’ve been replaced by large-format xerox, laser printers and ink-jet printers.

The bottom ad on the page above, for Crofoot, Nielson, and Co, could have been run in the 1980s except for the proud mention of “printing by electric light,” obviously the wave of the future. The ad second from the top, for the United States Blue Print Paper Company, seems to be a straightforward presentation for blueprint paper. The ad that fascinates me is the one at the top, for the American Blue Print Paper Company:

  • “Years ago we coated Blue Print paper by hand…” Wow. No wonder old drawing sets had fewer sheets than we have now. If our office had to coat sheets by hand, we’d be cramming everything onto as few drawings as possible.
  • “…and printed only with the sun…” I’m sure going up on the roof to print was loads of fun in the winter in Chicago or New York. Or even better, in April, waiting for a sunny day.
  • “…and it required about ten minutes.” Again, we’ve got a good reason to use fewer drawings.
  • “…dried by steam…” I have no idea what this means.

Overall, that ad is a good reminder of a basic tenet of the history of technology. No matter how primitive a given technology may seem, there’s probably something more primitive that makes it look great.

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