January 30, 2005

The blue finger of democracy.

My colleague Gordon Smith writes:
I love the ink-stained index finger as a symbol of democracy. If I were George Bush, I would hold up an ink-stained finger in the State of the Union address this week.

It was only a few days ago that there was talk that the ink-stained finger would be a dangerous identification, that would mark people for retaliation, that people would need to hide it. Now we see the pictures of people actively displaying what was devised as a utilitarian safeguard, turning it into a proud new symbol of the love of democracy.

UPDATE: Thanks to Virginia Postrel for linking to this post. She subtly reminds me that the ink is more purple, not so much blue. Maybe it's the same ink used in those old mimeograph machines (the fragrant ink us kids in the 60s used to inhale with delight). An emailer wonders how the lack of an ink-stained finger is regarded today in Iraq.

ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader emails:
"Maybe it's the same ink used in those old mimeograph machines (the fragrant ink us kids in the 60s used to inhale with delight). "

A positively Proustian figure. However, allow me to offer a clarification. That ink wasn't from Mimeograph [sic; it's their trademarked name] machines. In fact it was from Ditto machines -- an entirely different copy process.

Mimeographs used what amounted to a stencil on a drum, through which ink (almost always black) was pressed onto the paper. Ditto used masters typed with a special "carbon" paper which actually deposited aniline dye upon a master sheet, in the shape of each letter. This master was then pressed against blank sheets that had been dampened with a special solvent.

The small amount of the dye that transferred to the solvent-dampened sheets left the imprint of each letter that was on the master.

This dye was almost always purple, although a rather wretched red was also available.

The solvent was a chemical something like benzene or xylene, I believe: a ring-shaped molecule that chemists in fact call an "aromatic". The slow effluorescence of this solvent produced that odor you remember so vividly.

The advantage of the Ditto process was that it was far less messy than Mimeograph, which demanded the frequent handling of viscous black ink that had to be poured into the machine's drum. Hugely messy. Not so with Ditto. Still, if you were careless enough to touch the dye-letters themselves on the master, you'd come away with a purple finger. Which brings us delightfully back to those Iraqi fingers, doesn't it?

No comments: