The Magazine

Making Copies

How the Xerox machine changed the world.

Sep 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 02 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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Copies in Seconds

Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine

by David Owen

Simon & Schuster, 320 pp., $24

DAVID OWEN first wrote about xerography in a 1986 Atlantic Monthly article that characterized the Xerox machine as one of those extraordinary twentieth-century devices we take almost entirely for granted. Now, almost twenty years later, Owen returns to the subject in Copies in Seconds, an oddly engaging account of how one man, Chester Carlson, and an unknown company, Haloid, created "the biggest communication breakthrough since Guttenberg." This unlikely device, Owen writes, gave "ordinary people an extraordinary means of preserving and sharing all sorts of information, and it placed the exchange of complicated ideas within the reach of almost everyone."

The Xerox machine hit the market in the 1960s, and almost overnight it became so pervasive--so central to our daily routines--that it's now almost impossible to imagine life without it. Of course, if the Xerox machine hadn't been invented, we'd have "fewer lawyers, larger forests, smaller landfills"--as well as fewer filing cabinets, cleaner offices, and shorter meetings. And schoolchildren everywhere would still be dizzily inhaling the scent of methyl alcohol that clung to blue-inked copies cranked out on ditto machines. More than forty years ago, Marshall McLuhan hailed the Xerox machine, predicting its potent and potentially subversive force; and indeed, in the former Soviet Union, as Owen recalls, where "totalitarian rulers maintained their power by monopolizing access to information, copiers were guarded more closely than computers, and individual copies were numbered, so they could be traced."

The hero of Copies in Seconds is Chester Carlson, a man of unusual modesty and singular drive. Born in Seattle in 1906, Carlson began life without prospects. His father, although trained as a barber, was too sick to work and spent most of his adult life in bed, wracked with pain. He suffered from both tuberculosis and arthritis of the spine. Photographs, Owen notes, show a man who "looked eighty by the time he was forty-five."

Carlson's mother was more buoyant but no more fortunate, suffering from both tuberculosis and malaria among other afflictions. Carlson would recall sensing, at age five, that he was "poorer, more vulnerable" than other children. By the time he was eight, Carlson was working several jobs to help keep his family afloat. His family lived in "decrepit houses," and when he was seventeen, after his mother died, Carlson lived with his father in a converted chicken coop with a bare, concrete floor.

Carlson's resilience saved him, along with help from his mother's family. One of his uncles, a high-school principal, encouraged Carlson to enroll in a work-study program at Riverside Junior College in San Bernardino, sixty miles from Los Angeles. When he wasn't studying, Carlson worked in a concrete plant, a cannery, and a restaurant kitchen.

URGED ON BY HIS TEACHERS, Carlson then entered the California Institute of Technology, studying chemistry, physics, mechanics, and electricity. Carlson's work ethic was impeccable, but in this case his timing couldn't have been worse. He graduated in 1930, a bad year for anyone looking for work. The Depression was deepening, and unemployment was at an all-time high. So he moved to New York, where his aunt offered him a place to live and Bell Telephone offered him a job. Carlson worked as a patent clerk for the phone company before taking a similar position with P.R. Mallory and Company, a maker of electrical and electronic components that, in later years, also produced Duracell batteries.

Precise, introverted, patient, polite: Carlson was well-suited for clerical work. But he was also ambitious. In one notebook he sketched his dream house: an "idealized country estate," complete with an English farmhouse, orchards, a corral, and a fishing pond. And he itched to invent, filling notebooks with useful, if youthful ideas: a see-through toothpaste tube, a toothbrush with replacement bristles, a raincoat with gutters.

The tedium of patent work prompted Carlson's great idea. Patent applications were necessarily sent to various readers--a task that, in the 1930s, required considerable typing and retyping and vast stacks of carbon paper. And if Carlson needed a copy of a drawing in a patent application, he had to send it to an outside company that owned a state-of-the-art duplicating device like a Photostat or Rectigraph machine. Photostat copying, Owen notes, involved "coated papers and messy chemicals"; a Rectigraph machine, was "a camera the size of a kitchen stove, with a big black bellows for adjusting the focus." Carlson wanted a copier that would fit in an office, "where you could bring a document to it, push it in a slot, push a button, and get a copy out."