Chester's Dream: The Genesis of the Modern Photocopier

April 9, 2001

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The photocopier has become such a permanent fixture in the office that it´s often taken for granted. However, today´s sleek, speedy machines are actually the result of decades of invention and refining.

The birth of the photocopier began with Chester F. Carlson, a patent office employee with a degree from the California Institute of Technology and a knack for tinkering. During the Great Depression, Chester Carlson was laid off from Bell Labs where he had been a research engineer and, to make ends meet, took a job at the patent office. The patent work helped to pay his bills but Carlson, whose fingers were becoming arthritic, grew weary of making the countless hand copies that his position required. The only alternative to the tedium and strain of hand copying was to take photographs of the documents, but the approach proved too costly to be of regular use. In his spare time, Chester Carlson turned his thoughts to devising a means of copying documents quickly and easily.

While investigating the possibilities, Carlson decided to avoid photographic processes altogether since these had been thoroughly explored by other inventors. Instead, he kept abreast of other avenues of scientific research that were being conducted at the time. It wasn't long before he came to the conclusion that the relatively new field of photoconductivity held the most promise in regards to implementing his idea. One of the recent findings in this field was that the conductivity of light increases when it strikes the surface of certain materials. Thus, Carlson deduced that if an image of an original document were projected onto a photoconductive surface, electric current would flow only in those areas that the light hit directly. The print areas would be dark and block the current, leaving a specified image on the proper material.

Working at first in his kitchen and then moving his laboratory into a room at the rear of a beauty salon in Astoria, Queens, Carlson began experimenting with various conductive materials. To assist him in the endeavor, he enlisted the aid of an unemployed German physicist named Otto Kornei. The breakthrough moment for Chester arrived inauspiciously. He and Otto had taken a zinc plate and coated it with sulfur. Sulfur does not conduct electricity but it does conduct a small amount of charge. Otto wrote the words "10-22-38 Astoria" in ink on a microscope slide and then placed the slide on top of the sulfur and held it under a bright light for several seconds. Once the slide was removed, Otto then covered the sulfur-coated surface with lycopodium powder which is comprised of the spores of a fungus. When the powder was blown off, a mirror image of the words on the slide was revealed. To preserve this image, Carlson took wax paper and heated it over the remaining powder. As soon as the wax cooled, Carlson peeled the page away. The phrase had been perfectly reproduced. The words had become the world's first photocopy.

Carlson quickly patented the technique but, amazingly, had difficulty selling the idea to prospective companies for further development. IBM, Kodak, General Electric and RCA all passed on Chester Carlson's offer. It was not until 1944, six years later, that the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit technological research firm, decided to look into Carlson's invention to see if it had any worth. Battelle, in collaboration with a small Rochester manufacturer named Haloid, spent the next four years developing the technology. A public demonstration of what was then known as electrophotography took place on October 22, 1948, a decade to the day after Carlson made the first copy. Photocopiers were introduced a year later in 1949, but, unfortunately, the machines were less than efficient; relying on a flat plate (as opposed to the rotating drum that was introduced later) to make copies and taking over 45 seconds to do so. It was during this time that a professor at Ohio State University suggested a new name for the process. Xerography, a combination of xeros and graphos, the Greek words for dry and writing, defined the new process. As a result, Haloid named the less-than-perfect machine the XeroX Model A and soon changed the company name to Haloid Xerox.

A period of retooling followed during which various improvements were made to the nascent machine. In 1959, Haloid Xerox introduced the Model 914, the first truly automated photocopier. The machine proved to be immensely popular, generating nearly $60,000,000 in revenue by the end of 1961. This same year Haloid Xerox shortened their name simply to Xerox. By 1965, revenues had topped $500,000,000. The age of the photocopier had finally arrived.

Further innovations would follow. In 1970, electrostatic printing was introduced, followed by digital printing in 1982 and digital color printing in 1983. The photocopier has become a fixture in businesses and offices across the entire spectrum of industry and 24 hour copier centers have popped up in nearly every city or town large enough to have a Chamber of Commerce. Looking towards the future, photocopiers are currently in development that will equip their users with a much wider combination of technologies, effectively expanding their capabilities to that of a print shop. The ability to print and bind books and catalouges with glued spines and color covers will perhaps soon be common in the office place. Even with the advent of the Internet and predictions of the death of print, it is the photocopier that duplicates the printed web pages and email messages, revealing a workforce that values the printed page in their hand as much as the pixilated text on a computer screen.

So what happened to Chester Carlson, you ask? How did the insightful entrepreneur who started this whole thing fare in the Age of the Photocopier? Quite well actually. He had the presence of mind to negotiate a deal with Battelle for a 40% share of the proceeds derived from his discovery. The success of the Model 914 had made him a millionaire one hundred and fifty times over. In addition to being inventive, Chester Carlson was also generous. Before he passed away in 1968, he had rewarded the efforts of his assistant Otto Kornei, who had gone on to work at IBM, with stocks and had also donated an estimated $100 million to charity.


Xerox Online Factbook

Xerography: The Invention that No One Ever Wanted Steve Silverman Useless Information

Working Knowledge: Photocopiers Chip Holt

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