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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A satisfactory toner was developed virtually at the last minute, primarily through the efforts of a Haloid chemist named Michael Insalaco, and the first production 914 shipped in March 1960. The customer was Standard Press Steel, a manufacturer of metal fasteners in Jenkintown, Pennsylvania. The machine weighed nearly 650 pounds and had to be delivered on a tilting dolly so that it could be angled through doors.

In the mid-1950s, Carlson had worried that few businesses might ever need to make as many as a hundred copies a day—the threshold, he felt, at which xerographic office copying would be economical. During the 914’s development, Haloid’s engineering department had speculated that very heavy users, at peak periods, might make five times that many copies in a day, or 10,000 a month. From the day the first 914 arrived in Jenkintown, though, Standard Press employees used it to make copies at several times the predicted maximum rate. Using a 914 was seductively easy, since there were no special papers or chemical developers, and all you had to do was push a button—and the copy itself provided positive reinforcement, because it didn’t smell bad, curl up or turn brown. The numbers seemed inconceivable at first, but the first companies to receive 914s were turning out 2,000 to 3,000 copies a day.

Truly epochal technology shifts are sometimes incomprehensible until after they’ve occurred. When the first videocassette recorders were introduced, in the 1970s, the Motion Picture Association of America spent millions complaining to Congress that Hollywood was about to be annihilated. Instead, the VCR revived Hollywood by generating billions in rental fees and transforming the way movies were financed. Xerox machines had a similarly sweeping impact. Office workers didn’t realize how much they needed copies until, in 1960, they were suddenly able to make them easily. The technology itself created the demand that ultimately sustained it. Invention was the mother of necessity.

Chester carlson began earning royalties from xerography in 1947. The payments were small at first. In 1953, he traded his old Studebaker for a new one. The next year, he and his second wife, Dorris, whom he had married in 1946, built an unpretentious three-bedroom house just outside Rochester. Carlson eventually earned something like $200 million from his invention, but he lived in that house for the rest of his life. He sometimes told Dorris that he could be just as happy, or perhaps happier, living in a trailer in the yard. “I think he felt guilty about having a nice, comfortable house,” she said later, “and when people would come in and say, ‘Oh, this is lovely,’ he would say, ‘Dorris planned it all.’ ” She was never certain how truly serious he was about his trailer, but he mentioned it frequently, and she would tease him when he did: “And will you take your 13 steel filing cabinets with you?”

Carlson came to terms with his wealth by divesting himself of most of it. His philanthropy during the final decade of his life was prodigious. It was also entirely anonymous. When he gave the money to build a building, he did not permit his name to be revealed publicly, never mind be engraved in stone above the door. In the mid-1960s, for example, he gave money to Cal Tech for a center for the study of chemical physics, his field of concentration, but stipulated that the building be named for Arthur Amos Noyes, the professor whose teaching had influenced him the most. Carlson made large contributions to organizations that promoted world peace. He supported civil rights organizations. He bought apartment buildings in Washington, D.C. and New York City and arranged for the buildings to be racially integrated. He gave millions to the United Negro College Fund and made contributions to individual black colleges. He (and his will) provided most of the funding during the ’60s and ’70s for Robert Maynard Hutchins’ Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He supported the Fellowship of Reconciliation and other pacifist organizations. He gave money to schools, libraries and international relief agencies. The list of his beneficiaries was long, and he himself weighed every request. (His philanthropy continues today, through the Chester and Dorris Carlson Charitable Trust.)

Carlson died, of a heart attack, on September 19, 1968. He was 62. U Thant, the secretary-general of the United Nations, who had been a friend of Carlson’s, wrote at the time, “To know Chester Carlson was to like him, to love him and to respect him. He was generally known as the inventor of xerography, and although it was an extraordinary achievement in the technological and scientific field, I respected him more as a man of exceptional moral stature and as a humanist. His concern for the future of the human situation was genuine, and his dedication to the principles of the United Nations was profound. He belonged to that rare breed of leaders who generate in our hearts faith in man and hope for the future.”

In the nearly seven decades since Chester Carlson thought of xerography, no one has come up with a better way of making copies on plain paper. That is an almost inconceivable achievement, given the usual pace of hightechnology innovation, evolution and extinction. The number of copies made all over the world on xerographic machines has increased every year since Carlson and Kornei peeled away that first scrap of wax paper in Astoria back in 1938. In 1955, four years before the introduction of the 914, the world made about 20 million copies, almost all of them by non-xerographic means; in 1964, five years after the introduction of the 914, it made nine and a half billion, almost all xerographically. Five hundred and fifty billion in 1984. Seven hundred billion in 1985. This year, trillions.

And Carlson’s invention is still evolving. One of the most advanced machines today is the Xerox DocuColor iGen3, introduced in 2001. It is a digital printing system rather than a copier but operates xerographically. It produces 6,000 fullcolor, 8-1/2- by 11-inch offset-quality impressions per hour, and those impressions can be customized on the fly. Its four “imaging stations” lay down cyan, magenta, yellow and black toners on an electrostatically charged photoconductive belt, from which the powders are transferred, all at once, onto paper. The underlying imaging technology, by which a monochromatic process makes full-color prints, is hard to explain, but essentially it involves separating a polychromatic image into the three complementary colors (plus black) in order to “enable one color to be recorded, and then developing with colored powder to produce a copy of that color, then repeating for each other color and superimposing the dust images on the same copy sheet.”

That, at any rate, is how Chester Carlson described it in his second xerography patent, which he filed on April 4, 1939.


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