Making Copies- page 3 | History | Smithsonian
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Making Copies

At first, nobody bought Chester Carlson's strange idea. But trillions of documents later, his invention is the biggest thing in printing since Gutenburg

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This was significant progress, although it was not the vindication that Carlson had dreamed of. Battelle allocated just $3,000 for xerographic research in 1944, and more than a few of its scientists remained doubtful for years to come. “Of those who knew about it,” Dayton said later, “at least 50 percent thought it was a stupid idea and that Battelle should never have gotten into it. It just goes to prove that if you’ve got something unique, you don’t take a poll.”

Also in 1944, a New York City patent agent and freelance writer named Nicholas Langer came across a copy of one of Carlson’s first patents and wrote a laudatory article about it for Radio News. A condensed version of the article appeared the next year in a technical bulletin published by Eastman Kodak and caught the attention of Joseph C. Wilson, president of the Haloid Company, which, like Kodak, was situated in Rochester, New York. For some time, Wilson had wanted to establish Haloid in a business that, unlike photographic supplies, wasn’t already dominated by its powerful crosstown rival. Following a lengthy negotiation, in 1947 Haloid agreed to pay Battelle $10,000 for a one-year license to help the company build office copiers based on Carlson’s idea, with options to renew. Aquarter of the fee, or $2,500, went to Carlson—the first money he earned from his idea, which was now a decade old.

Success was not immediate. Haloid, with considerable help from Battelle, introduced its first xerographic copier, which it called the Model A, in 1949, but the machine was almost comically difficult to operate, and all the early testers returned it. “Awkward in its lack of co-ordinated design, it required more than a dozen manual operations before it would produce a copy,” Haloid’s research chief wrote in 1971. That was an understatement; four dozen manual operations was more like it. With practice, Haloid promised, a skilled operator could hope to make a copy every three minutes or so. The Model A Copier was so hard to use that it might have sunk xerography, and possibly Haloid itself, if it hadn’t turned out to be good at something else: creating inexpensive paper masters for offset lithographic duplicators, a type of printing press.

Developing a truly useful office copier took another ten years and many millions of dollars. Carlson became a Haloid consultant in 1948. Later, he was given a laboratory and an assistant, and he made a number of discoveries, for which he received three dozen patents. Still, Carlson’s most important contribution to the project during the 1950s was probably helping to maintain the company’s enthusiasm for his idea despite repeated setbacks. ABattelle engineer said later, “There always had to be something extralogical about continuing.”

Haloid’s final push to build an automated xerographic copier—the model 914—began in the early ’50s. The main theoretical work was done by a group of young physicists, who worked not in a gleaming laboratory but in an old house in a seedy part of town. Robert Gundlach, who went to work at Haloid in 1952 and eventually earned 155 xerography-related patents, told me not long ago, “You had to park about a block away and walk. They put Ernie Lehmann and me up in the attic, in a room that had a ceiling that sloped so that you couldn’t stand up except in the middle of the room. There was a group working on powder-cloud development, which involved making a fog of submicron carbon particles. Every once in a while we would have to vent the developing device, because it would become clogged with carbon dust, and we had to learn not to do that on Tuesdays, because that was when the lady next door hung out her white linens.”

The company’s engineers scrounged bolts, springs, aluminum tubing and other items from a junkyard. An early prototype was eventually able to make copies—though only in the dark, since it had no exterior cabinet to prevent the room’s lights from discharging the photoreceptor and spoiling the images—but it looked more like a science fair project than an office machine.

A photoreceptor has to be cleaned between exposures. In the Model A—in which the photoreceptor was a flat plate coated with selenium, a far more sensitive photoconductor than sulfur—the cleaning was done manually, by rocking the plate in a tray filled with what was essentially cat litter. (Coffee grounds, soybean meal, flax seed and corn meal were also tried and rejected—they attracted vermin.) In a 914, the photoreceptor was a cylinder and the cleaning was done by a rotating fur brush.

That Haloid thought of using fur may have had more to do with chance than with science: some of the company’s researchers and engineers in those days worked in a bleak, tenement-like brick building on Lake Avenue whose ground-floor storefront was occupied by the Crosby Frisian Fur Co. The engineers tried and rejected beaver and raccoon, then determined that the back fur of New Zealand rabbits worked just about right. The brushes were handsewn by the father of the fur shop’s owner. The engineers trimmed them to size on a homemade machine that looked a little like a reel lawn mower.

In the winter of 1959, the company rented a grim warehouse on Lyell Avenue and built a few final 914 prototypes there. The building’s owner, to save money, turned the furnace down at five o’clock, so the engineers erected a canvas enclosure around each machine to contain the heat given off by the machine itself and worked inside, often around the clock. They and other Haloid employees were trying to identify and eliminate the 914’s remaining defects, of which there were depressingly many.

One of the biggest challenges had to do with the toner— the powdered resin that’s used to develop xerographic images. A toner has to have many seemingly mutually exclusive characteristics. It has to melt quickly and completely, but can’t be so soft that it smears on the photoreceptor or so hard that it damages the surface; it has to be brittle enough to be capable of being ground to a fine powder to yield sharp, high-resolution images, but not so fine that it fouls the machine. And so on. “The problems are self-exacerbating once they begin,” Gundlach told me. An ideal toner, the scientists realized, would have some of the same properties as ice, whose viscosity, as you warm it, doesn’t change until the moment it turns into a liquid. Most thermoplastic resins, in contrast, pass through a gradient of states between solid and liquid, as chocolate does. No one knew whether a suitable resin existed.

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