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Dead medium: "Contoura" portable non-xerographic photocopier
Source(s): [Working example with instruction sheet and promotional brochure]
From: Andrew Reid
Date: Thu, 01 Feb 2001 22:01:17 -0500

The "contoura" is a remarkable example of the clever use of relatively straightforward technology. The machine is what you might call a "photographic copier", if you wanted to distinguish it from the xerographic implications of the modern term "photocopier." I am unable to date the machine with any precision, but it has the utilitarian simplicity I associate with late-1940s or early-1950s hardware. It is an electrical device, but has no Underwiter's Laboratories or other consumer safety data plates, and addresses and phone numbers in the documents lack ZIP codes and numeric prefixes, respectively.

Physical description:

The unit itself is basically a light box, about 5 cm thick, and about 10 inches by 8 inches for the "research model", and 14.5 x 9.5 inches for the "legal model." My example is evidently a "legal model," and has 10 15-watt incandescent light bulbs in two rows of five, wired in parallel. A thick (4 mm) frosted glass plate covers the array of bulbs, which are activated by a simple pushbutton switch.

The unit also comes with a translucent plastic air bladder, resembling a modern courier envelope, 2-3 cm thick when inflated and somewhat larger than the face of the light-box. One side of the air bladder has a glass plate glued to it.

Also provided is a piece of thin, translucent paper the same size as the face of the light box, which the instructions call the "paper mask."

Judging from a careful reading of the instructions, I believe my example is complete except for necessary photographic supplies.


According to the instructions, the unit is supposed to be accompanied by one of two types of "Contoura Contact Paper", photographic paper with a very slow-speed emulsion which allows it to be handled briefly in ordinary indoor lighting conditions. "Type C" paper is recommended for copying written and printed material, and "Type Y" is used for photographs or half-tones. Presumably these papers differ in their constrast sensitivity.

To actually make a copy, the user first places the photographic "Contact Paper" face down on the document to be copied, then places the inflated air bladder, glass-side down, on the contact paper, then the "paper mask", and finally the light box itself. Users are cautioned against attempting this in direct or strong light, but the instructions emphasize that no darkroom is required. The box is activated for approximately ten seconds, and the exposed contact paper is developed by "ordinary" photographic processes, either right away if the chemicals are available, or later on, if the exposed contact paper is promptly placed in a black envelope.

Processing is as for photographic prints, except that, as previously mentioned, no darkroom is needed, although subdued light is recommended. For a developer, the instructions recommend "Eastman Dektol" or equivalent, an optional stop bath, and then "Eastman Acid Fixing Bath". Readers familiar with amateur darkroom techniques will recognize these names, and the ordinariness of this print-development process is further emphasized by the claim that users can, if they wish, have their copies developed by "a photographer or local developing service."

Special features:

The instructions imply that the "paper mask" provided with the unit evens out the brightness of the light bulbs, and recommend that, if a light bulb burns out, your return the unit to the distributor for a new set of bulbs and a new paper mask. The paper mask accompanying my unit has dark spots corresponding to the light bulb positions, so the claim is plausible, but the means of producing the paper mask is unknown. (The frosted glass plate appears to be uniformly thick.)

From the promotional literature, it's clear that the principal practical advantage of the machine is its portability ("Fits in briefcase!") and convenience ("less than 7 lbs!") and literal flexibility -- the plastic cushion allows the photographic paper to "match the *contour* of the material being copied" (emphasis original), hence, presumably, the name "Contoura". This, coupled with the error-free nature of photocopying, makes quite a sales pitch.

The documents produced are, of course, negatives, and additional copies must be made to get positives. Transparencies can be copied by placing the paper emulsion-side-up underneath the original.

History / Research Tips:

I know next to nothing about this, and a web search has not provided anything beyond what I have in the manuals. My instructions have "Novel Products Corporation, 19 W. 44th Street, New York 18 New York" printed on them, and in one case crossed out and rubber-stamped with "United States Microform Corporation of Washington, Suite 704 Ring Building, 1200 18th St. NW, Washington 6 DC", with the phone number "REpublic 7258." Promotional material says the unit was invented by Fredric G. Ludwig, head of the Photographic Department of the Yale Library. A sticker on the box credits "F. G. Ludwig Associates, Pease Rd., Woodbridge, Conn." The sticker and the instructions make the claim a pending patent, but no number is given. The unit does not appear to have a serial number.

I obtained my unit indirectly from the outgoing Curator of Documents at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where a member of my family is employed.

I don't have many solid checkable references, so to be honest I'm not sure if the foregoing is exactly in the spirit of the list or not -- on the other hand, the paucity of references is, if nothing else, testimony to the deadness of the medium.

-- Andrew Reid