Xerography Turns 75
Believe it or not, there was a time when xerography was laughed at and carbon paper was king. One man changed it all 75 years ago this month.October 2003 By BOB NEUBAUER
It was October 22, 1938, in Astoria, N.Y., when Chester Carlson, a patent attorney and part-time inventor, made the first successful xerographic copy. In the six and a half decades since that historic day, xerography has grown to become an integral part of our daily lives—an outcome that would have seemed preposterous to Carlson's contemporaries. In fact, due to the extreme apathy of the companies to which Carlson tried to market his idea, the first convenient xerographic office copier was not introduced until 1959—21 years after the process was invented.
Genesis Of An Idea
Carlson, an only child, was born in Seattle in 1906. As a teenager, he worked for a printer and eventually acquired a press of his own, which he used to publish a small magazine for amateur chemists. It was a short-lived experiment, but it had a lasting effect.
"This experience did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy, and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes," Carlson recalled, years later.
After attaining a degree in physics, Carlson took a job at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York. He was laid off during the Depression, but eventually got a job with P.R. Mallory & Co., an electronics firm. He earned a law degree from New York Law School, and was later promoted to manager of Mallory's patent department.
There, in this heavy paperwork environment, Carlson noticed the consistent shortage of carbon copies of patent specifications. He began to conceive of a device that would accept a document and make copies of it in seconds.
After reading as much as he could about imaging processes, he decided to eschew the well-charted course toward conventional photography and explore the uncharted waters of photoconductivity. He learned that when light strikes a photoconductive material, the electrical conductivity of that material is increased.
Using his kitchen as a lab, Carlson conducted rudimentary experiments, uncovering the fundamentals of "electrophotography." He later set up a small lab in a rented second-floor room above a bar in Astoria, and hired a young physicist named Otto Kornei. On October 22, 1938, they met with success.
"I went to the lab that day and Otto had a freshly prepared sulfur coating on a zinc plate," Carlson later recounted. "Otto took a glass microscope slide and printed on it, in India ink, the notation '10-22-38 ASTORIA.' We pulled down the shade...then he rubbed the sulfur surface vigorously with a handkerchief to apply an electrostatic charge, laid the slide on the surface and placed the combination under a bright, incandescent lamp for a few seconds.
"The slide was then removed and lycopodium powder was sprinkled on the sulfur surface. By gently blowing on the surface, all the loose powder was removed and there was left on the surface a near-perfect duplicate, in powder, of the notation.
"Both of us repeated the experiment several times to convince ourselves that it was true, then we made some permanent copies by transferring the powder images to wax paper and heating the sheets to melt the wax. Then we went out to lunch and to celebrate."
That celebrating, however, was a bit premature. Carlson spent years searching for a company to help develop his invention into a useful product. He was turned down repeatedly by companies that felt carbon paper worked just fine.
It wasn't until 1944 that the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, contracted with Carlson to develop his process. Three years later, Battelle entered into an agreement with a photo-paper company named Haloid, giving Haloid the right to build a machine.
Wanting to replace the cumbersome monicker "electrophotography," Carlson and Haloid took the advice of a classical language professor at Ohio State University, who suggested "xerography," derived from the Greek words for "dry" and "writing." Haloid then coined the word "Xerox."
In 1959, the 914 copier was unveiled. It took about 15 seconds to produce the first copy and then 7.5 seconds for each additional copy. It was a smashing success. The first 914 was shipped March 1, 1960, to Standard Press Steel, in Pennsylvania.
Carlson was later given dozens of honors for his work and became a wealthy man—just rewards for his years of perseverance against discouraging odds. He died in 1968 at the age of 62. His legacy, however, lives on in nearly every in-plant in America.
Information for this story, including Chester Carlson's quotes, was provided by Xerox.