How the Photocopier Changed the Way We Worked—and Played

Decades before 3-D printers brought manufacturing closer to home, copiers transformed offices, politics and art

Xerox founder Joe Wilson with the 914, which could make copies up to 9 by 14 inches. Courtesy of Xerox Corporation

Recently I visited Whisk, a Manhattan store that sells kitchen goods, and next to the cash register was a strange, newfangled device: a 3-D printer. The store bought the device—which creates objects by carefully and slowly extruding layers of hot plastic—to print cookie cutters. Any shape you can think of, it can produce from a digital blueprint. There was a cutter in the shape of a thunderbolt, a coat of arms, a racing car.

“Send it in the morning and we’ll have it ready in a week or two,” the store clerk told me. I wouldn’t even need to design my own cookie cutter. I could simply download one of hundreds of models that amateurs had already created and put online for anyone to use freely. In the world of 3-D printers, people are now copying and sharing not just text and pictures on paper, but physical objects.

Once, 3-D printers were expensive, elite tools wielded by high-end designers who used them to prototype products like mobile phones or airplane parts. But now they’re emerging into the mainstream: You can buy one for about $500 to $3,000, and many enthusiasts, schools and libraries already have. Sometimes they print objects they design, but you can also make copies of physical objects by “scanning” them—using your smartphone or camera to turn multiple pictures into a 3-D model, which can then be printed over and over. Do you want a copy of, say, the Auguste Rodin statue Cariatide à l’urne—or maybe just some replacement plastic game pieces for Settlers of Catan? You’re in luck. Helpful folks have already scanned these objects and put them online.

As 3-D printing gets cheaper and cheaper, how will it change society? What will it mean to be able to save and share physical objects—and make as many copies as we’d like? One way to ponder that is to consider the remarkable impact of the first technology that let everyday people duplicate things en masse: The Xerox photocopier.

For centuries, if you weren’t going to the trouble of publishing an entire book, copying a single document was a slow, arduous process, done mostly by hand. Inventors had long sought a device to automate the process, with limited success. Thomas Jefferson used a pantograph: As he wrote, a wooden device connected to his pen manipulated another pen in precisely the same movements, creating a mechanical copy. Steam-engine pioneer James Watt created an even cruder device that would take a freshly written page and mash another sheet against it, transferring some of the ink in reverse. By the early 20th century, the state of the art was the mimeograph machine, which used ink to produce a small set of copies that got weaker with each duplication. It was imperfect.

Is the 3-D printer the new Xerox machine? Kotryna Zukauskaite

Then in 1959, Xerox released the “914”—the first easy-to-use photocopier. The culmination of more than 20 years of experimentation, it was a much cleaner, “dry” process. The copier created an electrostatic image of a document on a rotating metal drum, and used it to transfer toner—ink in a powdered format—to a piece of paper, which would then be sealed in place by heat. It was fast, cranking out a copy in as little as seven seconds. When the first desk-size, 648-pound machines were rolled out to corporate customers—some of whom had to remove doors to install these behemoths—the era of copying began.

Or more accurately, the explosion of copying began. Xerox expected customers would make about 2,000 copies a month—but users easily made 10,000 a month, and some as many as 100,000. Before the 914 machine, Americans made 20 million copies a year, but by 1966 Xerox had boosted the total to 14 billion.

“It was a huge change in the amount of information moving around,” said David Owen, author of Copies in Seconds, a history of Xerox.

Indeed, it transformed the pathways through which knowledge flowed in a corporation. Before the Xerox, when an important letter arrived, only a small number of higher-ups clapped eyes on it. The original would circulate from office to office, with a “routing slip” showing who’d read it and where it should travel next. But after the photocopier arrived, employees began copying magazine articles and white papers they felt everyone else should see and circulating them with abandon. Wrote a memo? Why not send it to everyone? Copying was liberating and addicting.

“The button waiting to be pushed, the whir of action, the neat reproduction dropping into the tray—all this adds up to a heady experience, and the neophyte operator of a copier feels an impulse to copy all the papers in his pockets,” as John Brooks wrote in a 1967 New Yorker article.

White-collar workers had complained of information overload before. But the culprit was industrial processes—book publishers, newspapers. The photocopier was different. It allowed the average office drone to become an engine of overload, handing stacks of material to bewildered colleagues. “You’d have this huge pile of meeting documents,” Owen says with a laugh, “and nobody has read them.”

Copying also infected everyday life. Employees would sneak their own personal items on the machine, copying their IRS returns, party invitations, recipes. Chain letters began demanding participants not only forward the letter, but send out 20 copies—because, hey, now anyone could! And people quickly realized they could make paper replicas of physical objects, placing their hands—or, whipping down their pants, their rear ends—on the copier glass. This copying of objects could be put to curiously practical purposes. Instead of describing the physical contents of a perp’s pockets when jailing him, police would just dump them onto the 914’s glass and hit copy.

The bizarre welter of things being replicated made even the folks at Xerox worry they had unleashed Promethean forces. “Have we really made a contribution by making it easier to reproduce junk and nonsense?” as Sol Linowitz, CEO of Xerox International, fretted in Life magazine.

Yet for everyday people, replicating nonsense was the best part of the copier—an illicit thrill. Hiding behind the anonymity of a duplicated document, office workers began circulating off-color jokes and cartoons. Sometimes it was fake memos that savagely mocked the idiocy of office life—a “Rush Job” calendar with jumbled dates, so a customer could “order his work on the 7th and have it delivered on the 3rd,” or an “organization chart” cartoon that consisted of an executive being kissed on the ring by a lesser executive, who also has a lesser executive kissing his ring, and on and on. Jokes about the intelligence of various ethnic groups abounded, as did sexually explicit material. Eye-popping cartoons depicted the “Peanuts” characters having sex.

“There were these copies where you had a Rorschach blot and you had to fold it and hold it up to the light, and there were people having sex in more positions than you could imagine,” says Michael Preston, a professor emeritus of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, who published an early collection of what he called Xerox-lore—the folklore of the copying age.

Artists, too, flocked to the device, thrilled by the high-contrast, low-fi prints it produced—so unlike either photography or traditional printing. As they showed, photocopying had an aesthetic. “When I show it a hair curler it hands me back a space ship, and when I show it the inside of a straw hat it describes the eerie joys of a descent into a volcano,” said Pati Hill, an artist who became famous for using a photocopier.

In essence, the photocopier was not merely a vehicle for copying. It became a mechanism for sub-rosa publishing—a way of seizing the means of production, circulating ideas that would previously have been difficult to get past censors and editors. “Xerography is bringing a reign of terror into the world of publishing, because it means that every reader can become both author and publisher,” Marshall McLuhan wrote in 1966.

This had powerful political effects. Secrets were harder to keep, documents easier to leak. Daniel Ellsberg used a copier to reproduce the Pentagon Papers (even having his children help make the replicas at a friend’s office). Fearful of the copier’s power, the Soviet Union tightly controlled access to the machines. In the United States, activists for ACT-UP—the group that fought to have AIDS taken more seriously by doctors and politicians—had a powerful impact in part because they had access to copiers. Many worked at media giants like Condé Nast and NBC, and after doing their work would run off thousands of copies of fliers and posters they’d use to plaster New York City for AIDS-awareness campaigns.

“They’d go in to do the paste-up for all these magazines, and then they would make thousands of posters and fliers that were so integral to what ACT-UP was doing,” notes Kate Eichhorn, an assistant professor at the New School who is writing a book about copiers. “These huge corporations were underwriting this radical activism.” This same force catalyzed the world of alternative culture: Fans of TV shows, sci-fi or movies began to produce zines, small publications devoted to their enthusiasms. The Riot Grrrl movement of young feminist musicians in the ’90s, appalled by mainstream media’s treatment of women, essentially created their own mediasphere partly via photocopiers. “Beyond its function as an ‘office tool,’ the copier has, for many people, become a means of self-expression,” said the authors of Copyart, a 1978 guide to DIY creativity.

But all that copying worried traditional authors: Surely they were losing sales if someone could copy a chapter from a book, or an article from a magazine, without paying for the original. Libraries and universities were hotbeds of so much duplication that publishers eventually took their complaints to the courts—and, in the ’70s, lost. The courts, and Congress, decided that making copies for personal use was fine.

“It was really a great moment in the late ’70s when it was a wonderful loosening of copyright,” says Lisa Gitelman, professor of English and media studies at New York University. These days, Congress is working hard­—often at the behest of movie studios or record labels—in the opposite direction, making it harder for people to copy things digitally. But back in the first cultural glow of the Xerox, lawmakers and judges came to the opposite conclusion: Copying was good for society.

There’s plenty of evidence that 3-D printing is good, too. Already many industries are using it to create sophisticated and highly customized products. Surgeons can create 3-D-printed bone grafts modeled off someone’s scanned body, and dentists are fashioning the wax models for crowns and bridges perfectly suited for a patient’s mouth. Chefs are experimenting with 3-D printing foods for aesthetic effect, and last November, astronauts aboard the International Space Station began using a 3-D printer to make a tool they needed.

But how might 3-D printing affect everyday life for the rest of us? It’s hard to tell right now, because they’re still slow devices—it can take hours to print a complex object—and even the cheapest ones are still too pricey for mass adoption. Most printers don’t come with a scanner attached, so using them for everyday duplication is still tricky. That may soon change, because large firms like Hewlett-Packard are entering the field—and chains like Staples are beginning to put 3-D printers in stores, giving people a Kinko’s-like access to this odd new technology. In a few years, getting a 3-D print or copy made might take only a few minutes and a few dollars at a store near you.

At that point, one can imagine hitting the Xerox 914 moment—when everyday people suddenly discover the pleasures of replicating objects. We might start scanning everyday objects that we often misplace—the battery-access covers on remote controls, crucial hinges or pieces of electronics—so that when things go missing, we can run off another copy. Maybe we’ll scan sentimental objects, like family jewelry, so that when future 3-D printers can affordably produce complex, metal forms, we can make highly realistic copies of these mementos, too. And maybe we’ll also use 3-D printers for practical jokes and pranks—printing rude objects we find online and leaving them on friends’ desks at work. We might get a new form of information overload: offices and homes crammed with too many weird, junky printed trinkets.

As with the photocopier, 3-D printers mean people will copy other people’s intellectual property. Websites where people share their 3-D models already have plenty of objects riffing off pop culture: You can print a chess set that uses the Minions from Despicable Me, or various Transformers-like characters. And there are subversive 3-D objects being printed and duplicated now, too—including the parts to make plastic guns that authorities fear can’t be detected in airport scanners. With 3-D printers, physical objects become just another form of information, to be traded and swapped, moving around beneath authorities’ eyes.

“With 3-D printers, once someone has scanned one item, everyone can have it,” says Michael Weinberg, a vice president of Public Knowledge, a digital-technology think tank. For now, the powers that be are withholding judgment. There have been only a few incidents of firms issuing legal warnings to people for making copies of their intellectual property. “We have not seen a total industry freakout yet,” Weinberg notes.

Even legislators haven’t regulated 3-D printers, realizing they have many potential good uses. One area that is starting to cause consternation, though, is those guns. It’s not illegal to make your own gun, but the ease of gun-printing—and the plastic nature of 3-D-printed weapons—has prompted a flurry of legislation. In December 2013, Congress extended the Undetectable Firearms Act of 1988, which requires weapons to be detectable in scanning machines. In practice, it likely means adding enough metal to a 3-D-printed gun that it shows up on, say, an airport X-ray machine. Maryland is considering a bill that would outright ban printed guns. Philadelphia passed one as well and, in California, the legislature passed a law that was later vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Our society’s reputation for copying and distributing edgy material precedes us, it seems—and is moving from the second dimension to the third.

Editor's note: This story originally said that the mimeograph machine used "smelly ink." In fact, that was the spirit duplicating or "ditto" machine.

This story also originally said that custom cookie cutters at Whisk could be ready the same day they were ordered. Currently, custom orders take one to two weeks to arrive. 

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