StoryTech Episode Six – The Invention that Democratized Printing

Jeff Kofman discovers the history of the Gestetner duplicating machine and how this technology helped revolutionize the way people communicate. Listen now on all major podcast platforms or read the full transcript below.
March 28, 2023

In episode six of StoryTech, Jeff goes on a quest to learn more about David Gestetner - one of the most successful tech inventors of the 19th Century and inventor of the Gestetner duplicating machine

Decades before the Xerox machine, the Gestetner brought printing to the masses and revolutionized the way people communicate through text. The invention changed the workplace, the way social groups organize and allowed aspiring writers to self publish for the first time. 

You can listen to episode six of StoryTech free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and Amazon Music right now. Or if you’re more of a reader, just scroll down for the full episode transcript and highlights from this week’s episode.

This week’s storytellers – Jonathan Gestetner and Roger Horowitz

To find out more about David Gestetner and his invention, Jeff speaks to two people with expert knowledge on the creation and success of the Gestetner duplicating machine. 

First up, David’s grandson Jonathan Gestetner, who shares some personal insight about his grandfather with Jeff and also about taking over the family business from his father Sigmund when he died in 1956. Jonathan then ran the Gestetner company into the late 20th century when it was acquired by Ricoh in 1995.

Next is business historian Roger Horowitz, Director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology, and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. Roger has a deep interest in how business technologies help shape our world and our culture. He shares with Jeff how he believes the Gestetner played an important role in bringing our society to where it is today.

Episode transcript and highlights

This 26 minute podcast episode was transcribed in 8 minutes by Trint’s super-powered AI. View the full transcript below or jump ahead to notable points from Jeff’s mission to uncover the forgotten Gestetner.

  • 00:04 – Who is David Gestetner?
  • 04:02 – An inventor lost to history
  • 08:26 – How the Gestetner decentralized printing
  • 13:11 – Revolutionizing the way information is shared
  • 16:15 – Gestetner: the Steve Jobs of the 19th century
  • 18:08 – The 100 year reign of the Gestetner
  • 23:56 – A business historian’s favorite technology


[00:00:02] Jeff (V/O): This is StoryTech. I'm Jeff Kofman. If I sound a little breathless and it sounds a little windy, it's because I'm talking to you on my bicycle. I'm pedaling up a leafy street in North London lined with yellow brick Victorian mansions from around the 1850s. I was cycling here a while ago when a blue historic plaque on one of the homes caught my eye. I'm going to stop in front of it now. The plaque reads. David Gestetner, developer of the office copy machine, lived here 1899 to 1939. Suddenly, memories of my childhood from fourth grade flooded back. I remembered the hand-crank coffee machine we called the Gestetner. I was so intrigued that when I got home, I googled Gestetner. He's pretty much forgotten today, but it's no exaggeration to say he revolutionized the way the world communicates. He was, well, kind of the Bill Gates of his time. And so today, the machine that democratized printing and publishing. 

[00:01:15] Jeff (V/O): From Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in cooperation with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station. This is StoryTech. 

[00:01:33] Jeff (V/O): This is a personal journey I want to share with you. I spent the first 30 years of my career as a broadcast journalist, foreign correspondent and war correspondent, and the last eight years as founder and CEO of Trint - a tech company focused on transcription and streamlining the workflow of storytelling. We have seen so much technological change come at us so fast. The idea behind this podcast is to explore how those changes have shaped what we watch, what we read, and what we listen to. Today, the forgotten Gestetner. 

[00:02:18] Jeff: Well hello. 

[00:02:19] Jonathan: Come in. 

[00:02:20] Jeff: Jonathan. 

[00:02:20] Jonathan: Hi, Jeff. 

[00:02:21] Jeff: Very nice to meet you. 

[00:02:23] Jeff (V/O): This is Jonathan Gestetner. 

[00:02:25] Jonathan: And David Gestetner was my grandfather, who died a year before I was born. So I never knew him. 

[00:02:33] Jeff: But you knew his legacy? 

[00:02:34] Jonathan: I knew his legacy. And I think the more one looks today at his his legacy, the more one sees it. 

[00:02:41] Jeff: I can probably guess how old you are based on whether the name Gestetner means anything to you. 

[00:02:48] Jonathan: Well somebody, I remember my father was somewhere another, and he said his name was Gestetner. And they said, "Oh, I didn't know there was anybody called Gestetner." And he said, "Who else would have thought that's a bloody awful name for a company?" 

[00:03:04] Jeff (V/O): The Ferris wheel was named after its inventor, George Ferris. The diesel engine after Rudolf Diesel. It never occurred to me as a kid that the Gestetner too, was named after its inventor. It was just the copy machine at school. I think my first attempts at short stories were reproduced on a Gestetner, which is why I wanted to know the story behind the machine and the man who invented it. And that's what brought me to a spectacular penthouse apartment in the leafy London borough of Hampstead. That is where his grandson lives. 

[00:03:39] Jeff: Not everybody's grandfather, has really changed the world? 

[00:03:42] Jonathan: No, no I. I think of it as that's what it is. I say I liken it to the impact of social media today. 

[00:03:52] Jeff (V/O): All this might sound like hyperbole, but the machine radically changed the way the world communicates. Jonathan grew up with stories about his grandfather, David. 

[00:04:06] Jonathan: I mean, my grandfather was an inventor. He invented other things as well. When Mr. Barrow wanted to patent his ballpoint pen, he couldn't get a patent. Because my grandfather had, had the ink was quite liquid. And he had developed the ink. And there was a ball he put in the neck of the tube, and he would roll that across the cylinder to ink the cylinder. And that's exactly the same process as the ballpoint pen. 

[00:04:37] Jeff: So he anticipated the development of the ballpoint pen, although he didn't actually build it. 

[00:04:41] Jonathan: That's right. Yes. And things like the, you know, the folding nail clipper. 

[00:04:47] Jeff: He invented the nail clipper. 

[00:04:48] Jonathan: Yes, that's one of his. I've got the copy of the patent downstairs. 

[00:04:52] Jeff: You're great. 

[00:04:53] Jonathan: You say he was an inventor and he exploited one of his things, but the others, he didn't. 

[00:04:58] Jeff: So he never manufactured nail clippers? 

[00:05:01] Jonathan: No. 

[00:05:02] Jeff: He just invented. 

[00:05:03] Jonathan: Yeah. 

[00:05:08] Jeff (V/O): And then, of course, came the invention that bore his name and made David Gestetner both famous and rich. What is hard to understand is that until the late 19th century, unless you were going to publish a book, everything that needed to be copied was copied by hand, by copy clerks. Tedious, time consuming and costly - ripe for disruption. Gestetner's game-changing invention works through a process called stencil duplicating. 

[00:05:36] Jonathan: Stencil duplicating. He was the developer of his copying machinery, which put him in a broader scale as the link to the modern office. It was the first for people, the ability to produce copies themselves rather than having had done professionally. 

[00:05:55] Jeff: Do you have a sense of how he figured this out? 

[00:05:58] Jonathan: Well, there's stories. There's always stories. But they say that he had been working as a clerk on the Vienna Stock Exchange and the copying was a tedious business. He then went to Chicago and he then came up with the, he was selling paper kites. 

[00:06:16] Jeff: Paper kites? The things you fly in the air? 

[00:06:17] Jonathan: Yes. And these were made out of coated Japanese tissue. And when they got wet, they held together. And that's how he developed the copying process. 

[00:06:28] Jeff (V/O): The story that's been passed down is that while David Gestetner was living in Chicago in the 1870s, he accidentally spilled a pot of ink on a pile of kites. The ink pattern was the same in each one. It inspired him to find a way to replicate the process commercially. And so in 1881, he moved to London to find financing and opened the Gestetner Cyclograph Company. 

[00:06:53] Roger: The standard, if you will, structure of these kinds of machines is a rotary system where you'd have essentially a barrel, small barrel, to which you could attach a stencil and it would go round and round and round. 

[00:07:07] Jeff (V/O): This is Roger Horowitz, a history professor at the University of Delaware and the director of the Center for the History of Business, Technology and Society at the Hagley Museum and Library. One of his main interests is how business affects everything else in our lives. 

[00:07:23] Roger: I'm interested in how, what business has done, creates the world. And creates our culture, creates the material foundations of our society, shapes the relationships that people have, generates opportunity, sometimes generates oppression, sometimes generates liberation. I say, that's the reason I'm interested in business. 

[00:07:43] Jeff: Did you actually encounter the Gestetner when you were younger? 

[00:07:46] Roger: Oh, yes. Yes. When I was a teenager, I worked in an office that did a lot of agitation, social movement, demonstrations, things like that. And we would create leaflets for distribution, promoting events and things like that. And I became a pretty decent operator of the machine we had to make copies of it. So I spent a lot of time nursing the machine along. It was always a challenge when the stencil would start to rip. Could you get a few hundred more copies out of a particular stencil there? How did you deal with the paper jamming? How did you deal with the ink and all that? And I got pretty good at nursing these machines along and creating the stencils and copy them. So, yeah, I ran a lot of copies on the Gestetner. 

[00:08:26] Jeff (V/O): But back to how the Gestetner worked. 

[00:08:29] Roger: That's the basic idea. A rotating drum to which a very simple stencil could be attached and a way to feed paper and ink into the whole process. These things were small. Think about whatever standard desk you have. Much smaller than a desk. Maybe the size of a 11 by 17 inch paper would be a large version of these machines, often quite smaller. They could be fairly heavy because you'd want to have them made a sturdy materials. And if they're made of steel and things like that, they're hard to pick up there. But a relatively simple form of technology. 

[00:09:04] Jeff: So if we go back to the year, I think it's 1440 when Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press and allows people to mass produce books and information for the first time. And then we fast forward, what, 450 or so years to the Gestetner. What does the Gestetner do that Gutenberg's printing press and the machines that followed weren't able to do? 

[00:09:30] Roger: The printing press is a big, heavy device. And to generate books and publications and magazines and all that kind of stuff required type, which people had to set and required an apparatus to generate copies of sufficient quantity to make it worthwhile. None of that's easy. All of it requires substantial capital investment to generate these kinds of copies.

[00:09:56] Roger: So while it obviously is a lot easier than having people sit there and scribe and generate copies by hand, which was widely done in the ancient world, it's a capital intensive process. Hence the importance of publishers well into the 20th century because you needed the money to buy everything and employ the people to print things. 

[00:10:17] Roger: Now the Gestetner decentralizes printing in an amazing way because suddenly you've got this relatively simple machine that can generate lots and lots of copies from a stencil, which suddenly changes the economics and the facility by which people could generate large numbers of copies of a particular document. 

[00:10:40] Jeff: So that sounds like a game changer in printing technology. 

[00:10:45] Roger: Oh, it absolutely is. When you start having the Gestetner and other mimeograph machines, the amount of paper that can be generated can grow enormously. And in doing so, it also means that lots of people can produce this kind of paper. You don't need to have access to these large printing presses in order to generate copies. Now, the quality might not be as good. It may not be attractive if you're, say, printing art materials and all that, it's much harder to produce photographs on a mimeograph machine. Obviously there's limitations. But the potential is substantial for generating paper outside of the institutional structures of the printing business. 

[00:11:24] Jeff: So if you describe the 19th century office, how did it work prior to the Gestetner in the 19th century office when they had a document that needed a couple of copies of. Say, it was a will or a legal contract. 

[00:11:37] Roger: Well, if you go back to say, let's say the 1860s, 1870s, an office would have a number of clerks in it. These would be men, not women. And they would be in training to become managers. And the clerks would copy these things out by hand, or you would use a letter book to make small number of essentially sort of carbon copies. That was it. 

[00:12:00] Jeff: Then along comes Gestetner. And how does Gestetner change it? 

[00:12:04] Roger: Well, you could have the typewriter, the person typing, or you could have the clerk and they could create a stencil. And that stencil could go on the machine and you could make multiple copies just like that. It really transforms that kind of office environment. And it comes at a time, I'll just say this, when offices needed to do this. As you have the rise of large business in the late 19th century, parallel to the creation of these large integrated enterprises, is a world of paper which tracks the process of products. So you know where the product is, you know what's done, you know what the costs are. So as firms get bigger, the mound of paper gets bigger, and you want to be able to keep this kinds of information there. You want to be able to make copies. This makes it far easier for you to generate the copies that creates the paper trail, which follows the process of production and manufacturing. 

[00:12:56] Roger: This is the beginning of the change in the who's working in the office. I mean, you start having women go into the offices because you need to have large workforces to keep track of things and need people who are literate. And women could do that. 

[00:13:11] Jeff (V/O): And the Gestetner didn't just change the culture of the office. It had all kinds of impacts on the way information is shared, which is where StoryTech comes in. 

[00:13:25] Roger: So say if you're a church and you want to have a women's group as part of your church and the women's group wants to publish a newsletter. Well, the church can buy a machine, which a number of groups in the church can have access to, and each of these clubs can generate a newsletter which can send to its members as a way to facilitate communication. It can ask people to write stories, and things like that can generate a much more decentralized means of communication. 

[00:13:50] Roger: This becomes very popular in the writing of fiction, where there's a whole world of, we would call them now zines. In other words, cheap publications by people writing fiction or creative nonfiction to circulate with inside essentially these clubs, to share their work long before it actually goes out for a publisher. And there's been some work done about some of the great fiction writers of the early 20th century who were part of these clubs that would circulate drafts with each other. We're probably talking 20, 30, 50 people that they would share these stories to before they tried to reach publishers. We also know that people who write science fiction heavily use these kinds of zines, again using mimeograph machines to share their material, getting it ready for actually going to a publisher who would probably publish this and create a book out of it. 

[00:14:41] Roger: So it comes back to the decentralization of printing. When you decentralize it and you have these relatively cheap machines, all sorts of different units, different groupings can use these to communicate and create cohesion among themselves around what they're interested in sharing. And what's starts to happen is that publishers start to pay attention to these zines as a way of doing talent hunting. Much like publishers will look at blogs and see what people are printing on the Internet and see, well is this a someone who could be a potential author? 

[00:15:11] Roger: And I think the impact, that's the most obvious one, but it happens in all sorts of ways. I mean, the story I'm telling about the church club, multiply that by the number of churches that were in this country in 1920 and think about the number of clubs these churches and synagogues may have had. And you're talking probably tens of thousands of little organizations, little groups communicating via these inexpensive machines. Really a tremendous change in the kind of communications that's feasible in our society. 

[00:15:47] Advert: StoryTech is sponsored by Trint. The automated transcription and content creation tool made by storytellers for storytellers. Trint can help turn audio and video files into articles, podcasts and videos faster and easier than ever before. A discount code StoryTech25 is available on annual plans at 

[00:16:15] Jeff: So was Gestetner the Bill Gates, the Steve Jobs of his day? 

[00:16:21] Roger: The comparison with Jobs or Gates is tough. I mean, because we have an image of who these people are in a kind of digital world there. So I'm not sure if I could pick an analogy. I would look more towards someone like David Sarnoff, who is the person who takes radio and makes radio available for the public. But if you make an analogy to contemporary entrepreneurs, perhaps jobs is the best one because of the way that the smartphone has changed our communications methods in such a big way. 

[00:16:57] Jeff: So we talk about startups today as if they're something new. Gestetner and the people who did what he did in the 19th century, we call them inventors. But I wonder when you look back now with the language of today, was Gestetner really just a startup guy who succeeded? 

[00:17:14] Roger: Well, I mean certainly it was a startup, absolutely. But when you say startup today, it doesn't convey to me the kind of marketing muscle which Gestetner had, which you describe with a kind of network of stores and outlets and things like that, and an actual workforce there. That's not a startup. That's a company which has been able to use their own resources to do that. 

[00:17:39] Jeff (V/O): When David Gestetner died in 1939, his son Sigmund took over the company. When he died in 1956, Jonathan Gestetner and his brother ran the business. 

[00:17:50] Jonathan: We had about 15,000 employees, nationally. 

[00:17:54] Jeff: 15,000? 

[00:17:56] Jonathan: We were very vertically integrated. My grandfather and then my father developed retail businesses around the world. 

[00:18:06] Jeff: Gestetner shops? 

[00:18:06] Jonathan: Yes. 

[00:18:08] Jeff (V/O): The company created new products and variations on its signature machine, including an electric version that didn't have to be hand-cranked. But eventually, competitors started to gain ground. Back to business historian Roger Horowitz. 

[00:18:25] Roger: Well, the Gestetner machine generates relatively mediocre copies, large numbers of them quite cheaply. So it never fully displaces the printing business because there's still a need for higher-end copies - that continues to exist, though pressed by it. And it also was a machine that actually was kind of challenging to operate. You know, you need to know what you're doing, I guess, speaking as someone who operated it. So along comes the Xerox machine, really in the 1960s, other ways of setting things and communicating copies of it. And that starts to displace the Gestetner. For a long time, the photocopy machines are not competitive with Gestetners because they're so expensive. But eventually copy machines become cheaper and cheaper and cheaper and that displaces the need for an inexpensive form of printing. So probably by the eighties, you're seeing the eclipse of these machines in the kind of democratic, decentralized forms that we've been talking about, churches and other organizations. You just don't need these things. You can get a copy machine and that's an easier way to do things. 

[00:19:28] Jeff (V/O): By the 1990s, Jonathan Gestetner and his brother had to make a decision about the future of the company their grandfather built. 

[00:19:36] Jonathan: I felt it was time that the investment in every new product was such that every time you developed a new product, you bet the company. 

[00:19:47] Jeff: So what did you decide to do? 

[00:19:49] Jonathan: I decided it was time to indicate the Gestetner was available for, to be purchased. 

[00:19:56] Jeff: So you sold the company? 

[00:19:57] Jonathan: Yes. 

[00:19:58] Jeff: Was that a difficult decision? 

[00:20:00] Jonathan: From my point of view, no. My brother was more reticent to do that. He was, wasn't happy. But there comes a time when you have to sell something, when there's still value. Kodak hardly exists. Olivetti you may have heard of, you know, hardly exists, if at all. You know, things change and the world changes. 

[00:20:26] Jeff: That's a pretty good run for a piece of technology 100 years. 

[00:20:29] Roger: It's very long. It's very long. I mean, if you think, for example, take another technology. Think about the automobile, that based upon the internal combustion engine, I mean, that really becomes popular in the 19 teens. It's developed beforehand. So it's a bit over 100 years that the internal combustion engine for the car is at a run. Well, it's fading. I mean, you can predict that in 20 years it's only going to be a small number of relatively old vehicles that will be out there, that we'll be driving electric cars overwhelmingly. Say by the middle of the 21st century, they'll be antiques. They'll be like Gestetners, because we won't want to have the stink and the noise. We can plug the darn things into the side of our house. We don't have to drive to the gas station that way. They'll be convenient, they'll be cheaper and all that. So they'll be displaced and the internal combustion driven car will fade. So there you think about how important the car is for our societies and it too will fade. So for the Gestetner to be out there for a good hundred years, that's an impressive run for what's a relatively basic and simple form of technology. 

[00:21:36] Jeff: When you look back on the Gestetner series of machines, because it wasn't just one machine. Why do you think it's important? 

[00:21:45] Jonathan: It's important because it freed the ability to produce copies from professional things, which is just the reason that, for instance, communist regimes or totalitarian regimes are scared of the duplicator because it makes it too easy for people to spread propaganda. Just as today, people can spread propaganda with social media, which is becoming an increasing menace. 

[00:22:15] Jeff: So what do you think the world would have been like if David Gestetner hadn't figured out how to use stencils to reproduce copies? 

[00:22:22] Jonathan: I don't know. What would the world have been like if Mr. Ford and and others hadn't invented the motorcar?

[00:22:34] Jeff: The word Gestetner may no longer be a household name, but the machine hasn't entirely disappeared to museums and memories. As Jonathan and I were talking around the dining table, his wife Jacqueline, sat down to join us. She too, bears that famous family name. 

[00:22:51] Jacqueline: We were in Athens a few weeks ago with my brother and sister in-law, and suddenly my sister in-law said, "Look at that. Look at that." We all looked up. There was a building that said the Gestetner office. 

[00:23:02] Jeff: In Athens in Greece? 

[00:23:04] Jacqueline: Athens. Yes. Yes. 

[00:23:05] Jeff: And was it active or was just a memory? 

[00:23:07] Jacqueline: No, no, no. I think it was it was active. It was an office where they, I guess you brought your stuff in if you wanted it duplicated. We didn't have much language in common, so it was a little difficult. 

[00:23:20] Jeff: Right. Greek is a little hard. 

[00:23:21] Jacqueline: To communicate. I think they didn't care too hoots, but I mean, it was fun for us to see. 

[00:23:26] Jeff (V/O): And for me, it was a fun adventure. Uncovering the story behind a name hidden in the recesses of my memory. I can still remember the ten year old me happily hand cranking the school Gestetner for my teacher. So stories and songs could be distributed to our class. And I could never have imagined that that machine had revolutionized the way the world communicates. 

[00:23:52] Jeff (V/O): One more thing before we go. Back to Roger Horowitz. 

[00:23:56] Jeff: So before we wrap up, we'd like to ask everyone who comes on this show to talk about their personal relationship with technology. So, is there a piece of technology in your life that you couldn't live without? 

[00:24:11] Roger: I probably could not live without a car because the car has structured where I live and my relationship to work and all the other elements of our lives. We and I have built our lives around having individual transportation devices, and that's what we depend upon. And if the cars all went away, I would have to move. I'd have to change the way I live in that kind of a way. So I'd say yes, that's probably the big one. 

[00:24:38] Jeff: And what's your least favorite piece of technology? 

[00:24:43] Roger: I'd say that I dislike the Alexa machines and the various voice-actuated machines in the home that you could use to order things around. I think it contributes to the helplessness of our society that we can't do things ourselves. And the danger of technology is that it takes knowledge and skills that we can use and it makes them obsolete. So that's where I'll bat there. I mean, I very much dislike, for example, the kind of parking technology you can get on cars because I think you should beable to park your car yourself, and you might need to someday. So again, the Alexa's again, these automatic devices that you just use your voice to make things happen. I think you should just get up and turn the microwave on yourself. I don't think it's such a terrible thing. 

[00:25:34] Jeff (V/O): StoryTech is produced by Antica Productions, Trint and the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in association with WAER Syracuse, an NPR member station. 

[00:25:48] Jeff (V/O): Our senior producer is Kevin Sexton. Our associate producer is Emily Morantz. Mixing and Sound Design by Philip Wilson. Our theme music is by Josh Spear. Stuart Coxe is the president of Antica. Our executive producers are Laura Regehr and me, your host, Jeff Kofman. 

[00:26:08] Jeff (V/O): If you have story ideas, suggestions or thoughts, you can send me an email at These are early days for StoryTech. If you like what we're doing, give us a review, subscribe, post links on social media and tell your friends about us. We have lots of really interesting StoryTechs to come. 

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