Culture Shock: This Ancient Invention Baffled my Teenager

A few weeks back, my daughter and I were sitting in the counselor’s office at the high school. Sunshine, at 14 years old the youngest of our four children, was signing up for her freshman classes in the fall.

We sat at a desk with the course selection sheet between us while discussing the options for various tracks and electives. When the form was completed, Mrs. C., the counselor, pulled it over to her side, did a little flip and a tug, and voila – there was a yellow copy of the form for Sunshine to take home, all the classes neatly filled in.

Sunshine stared. “Wow! How did you do that?” she marveled.

“How did I do what?” said Mrs. C.

“How did you get a copy of this so fast?”

Mrs. C., nice as she is, went on to patiently explain and demonstrate, in slow motion, the ancient invention of carbon paper.

“That is so amazing,” marveled Sunshine. “It’s like magic.”

I’m not one to rant against the curse of Smartphones and social media and the general shortcomings of millennials – I’ll leave that to my husband. In fact, I quite like living in this connected world. But the incident did trigger a tiny alarm bell in my brain. Are we at risk of turning into another Ancient Rome, where the greatest inventions of mankind to date get forgotten, buried under a wave of barbarism lasting centuries? What if we somehow “lose” the Internet, the place we all turn to in search of facts we can’t possibly seem to remember? It’s not such an outlandish thought if you think that without electricity the internet goes up in a cloud – ha! – of nothingness. Not much a future archaeologist could find there.

Perhaps our civilization doesn’t hinge on such a small thing as carbon paper. And perhaps enough people will remember the magic workings of carbon paper to prevent its slide into obscurity. Except don’t look among the ranks of 8th grade teenagers for such people.

Here is what happened a few days later: Sunshine invited several of her friends to a sleepover, and over a breakfast of waffles we chatted about school. My daughter remembered  her rather embarrassing carbon copy incident and relayed it to the group. She needn’t be embarrassed.

“OMG,” was the answer from all sides. “I thought the exact same thing!” None of the girls had ever seen carbon paper in action. One of the girls admitted she had been convinced the counselor had a copy machine hidden away in her desk drawer and used it to make a quick copy of the sheet. 

Another looked thoughtful, and then her face lit up. “I suppose that’s why they call it a carbon copy!”

“Yes,” I said, delighted that I could teach a small lesson. “That’s the origin of the ‘cc’ field on emails. Carbon Copy.”

They all smacked their heads in recognition. They had never stopped to wonder what ‘cc’ meant.

If you think about it, it’s amazing carbon paper has made it this far. It has outlasted the turntable, the cassette player, and the floppy disk, none of which my kids could describe to you. They also don’t remember strolling through Blockbuster or buying actual film for a camera or the noise of a dial-up connection. And they stare in horror when Noisette and I describe how we shared one house telephone that was wired into the wall with the entire family – all of whom seemed to perennially lurk in the background listening in. The only good news was you didn’t need a mobile phone or iPad to pass the time while sitting on the toilet because – it being the only toilet in the house – there was always someone knocking at the door urging you to be done already.

And this is a good place to end, since we’ve now come to the one brilliant invention that I believe is here to stay for all eternity. No need to explain to my teenagers how to use one. Although how to clean one is another matter…

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