Rear Guard Of The Information Revolution
“WE’RE ONE OF THE FEW COMPANIES STILL making fabric ribbons,” says Victor Barouh, 72, a wavy-haired man with a pencil-thin mustache. “We must have three or four hundred different spools, so when someone needs a ribbon for an old Addressograph or an Underwood typewriter, we’re the people who can supply it.” We are walking through his cavernous factory in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn.
As he talks, he points out a wall on which hang metal dies used to make the plastic shells for more than a hundred different cartridges for electric typewriters and early word processors and computer printers. Scattered around the warehouselike space about us are ranks of machines for making office supplies, many of them older than the owner, others built right on the premises during the last 30 years.
Barouh’s company, which he founded in the 1950s and which also has factories in Canada, Ireland, and Mexico, is Ko-Rec-Type. The name is most commonly associated with the little bottles of white liquid and slips of white paper you used to use to correct typing mistakes. “When I started,” he says, “our main business was Hectograph master units. Nobody remembers that process, but everyone used it until the photocopier came in. Everything keeps changing, but we’ve always continued to make supplies for the old machines.”
The fabric typewriter ribbons are inked on machines that were many decades old when Barouh founded the business; he has no idea when they were made, but it may have been around the turn of the century. He shows me one turning out an inch-wide ribbon with four different colors of ink running in stripes down its length. “That’s for an early dot-matrix color printer.” Another machine is making purple-inked ribbons for printing postal money orders. “You get guys in jail altering a five-dollar money order to get five hundred dollars. We came up with a dye so strong it bleeds through to the back, so the image can’t be changed. Then they tried to dissolve the ink, so we had our chemists reformulate it so you couldn’t eliminate the original impression.” Similarly, he makes multicolored ribbons that superstores use to make their receipts harder to forge. He also makes the ribbons with magnetic ink that banks use to print the information along the bottom of personal checks.
Barouh says hello to a woman making an IBM-style electric typewriter cartridge and stops to chat with her in Spanish. She’s actually installing the ribbon by hand and laying down glue to join the halves. “When we created the original Ko-Rec-Type tabs,” he says, “the sheets were folded and packaged manually. Two engineers designed a machine that would save the labor of 40 people. But I decided to continue the manual operation to keep people working.
“We do so many different jobs. During the Cold War, when we had missiles up in Alaska facing Russia, there was a big problem with the computers tracking the missiles. The nylon ribbons on the printers would freeze in the cold. I remembered a TV commercial with an oil for your car that wouldn’t freeze, or an oil additive—I can’t even remember now—and I tried putting that in the ribbons instead of mineral oil. I ended up shipping hundreds of cases of the ribbons at a time. Until the Cold War ended.”
While staying in action as the rear guard of the information revolution—supplying ribbons and cartridges for every machine that change has left behind and even, on two ageless Volkswagen-size presses in the basement, occasionally filling an order for plain old-fashioned carbon paper—Barouh also keeps up on the front line. When we step into his machine shop, he shows me a device his engineers have just completed for filling ink-jet cartridges. And yes, he does sell laser toner cartridges.
“A guy from 3M came in,” he says, “and he told me, ‘There’s no operation like yours anywhere with so many hundreds of items under one roof. We have a whole division just to make the yarn for carpeting or a whole division just to make Post-its. How the hell do you do it? How do you keep all the records?’ He said, ‘You don’t even have supervisors here.’
“I said, ‘No, that’s not true. The woman working at that machine is a supervisor. She can open a drawer and look at a piece of paper and tell you exactly how much of everything she has in inventory and exactly what her people are turning out.’ You see, I don’t have any education—though I have 20 or so patents. But I am blessed with having people here who are knowledgeable and who I try to treat like family. You know, in any job you have to work your heart out and you have to be lucky, but with the right people there’s nothing you can’t do. I’ve just got the right people here.”