The Magazine

Making Copies

How the Xerox machine changed the world.

Sep 20, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 02 • By BRIAN MURRAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Carlson, understandably, first considered photography as the basis of his invention, but backed off when he considered that huge companies, like Eastman Kodak, had probably already studied the problem without success. Carlson also wondered if he could make copies chemically, perhaps by using a solvent partially to dissolve "the text or image of an existing document, so that an impression of it could be made by pressing a blank piece of paper against it, as with a printing press." But Carlson also assumed that no single practicable solvent could work effectively with the endless array of available inks and papers. Besides, the solvent itself would unavoidably alter the original document--something Carlson was determined to avoid.

Carlson's research led him down the different path of photoelectricity--a concept "so hard to understand that Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for having explained it in 1905." Put very simply, a photoelectric material is, as Owen writes, "one that sheds electrons when light shines on it." Carlson's work was partly inspired by the earlier experiments of a Hungarian physicist, Paul Selenyi, who looked for ways to transmit and print newspaper photographs and other graphic images through electrostatic means. In part, Selenyi used "finely divided powders to make visible images of electrostatic charges." Carlson, Owen writes, "always credited Selenyi with having inspired him, but Selenyi never saw the connections that Carlson did."

WORKING IN MAKESHIFT LABS, Carlson theorized that he could improve on Selenyi's method by combining it with photoconductivity. He would use light "to remove electrostatic charges from the nonimage areas of a uniformly ionized photoconductor." Then he would "make the pattern visible by dusting it with powder, and transfer the powder to a sheet of untreated paper." Carlson eventually scraped up money to hire an assistant, Otto Kornei, an experienced electrical engineer who doubted the worth of Carlson's process but was hard up for work. In 1938 Carlson and Kornei, using sulfur as a photoconductive source, produced on a glass microscope slide the first xerographic image, a scrawled notation of the date and their location in Queens, New York: "10.22.38 ASTORIA."

Kornei remained skeptical of the long-term promise of Carlson's process and left for a better-paying job. Carlson, however, pressed on, despite the fact that for years he couldn't find corporate support for his theories. Kodak, IBM, and RCA all snubbed Carlson before he finally formed an agreement with the Haloid Corporation, an obscure maker of photographic supplies and equipment based in Rochester, New York.

With Carlson's continued input, Haloid technicians and engineers refined his ideas, substituting, for example, selenium for sulfur as a more sensitive, efficient photoconductor. Haloid changed the name of Carlson's patented process from electrophotography to xerography, inspired by the Greek words xeros ("dry") and graphein ("writing"). The firm itself became known as Haloid Xerox and later, more simply, as the Xerox Corporation, which seemed similar enough to powerhouse Kodak "without being derivative."

In 1949 Xerox introduced the first commercial version of the copier, the Model A, but it proved too complicated for routine office use, involving a series of precise steps that contradicted Carlson's goal of simplicity as well as reliability. But the Model A used a toner made from a resin that repelled water and attracted oil-based inks, making it perfect for creating cheap lithographic masters used in offset printing. As a result, the Model A spun profits that enabled Xerox to persist in aggressive research that, in 1960, produced the 914: the world's first easy-to-use plain paper copier. Although an early version of the 914 is now displayed in the Smithsonian, "more than a few," Owen suggests, are still used throughout the world.

THIS MIGHT SURPRISE the early Xerox engineers, who knew the 914 was notoriously temperamental, particularly in high humidity--good news for the growing corps of repairmen Xerox was now forced to employ. Owen quotes one executive who admits that "as an invention the 914 was magnificent, but as a product it wasn't very good." Still, when it worked, the 914 was a wonder to behold. It made far better copies than rival devices, the Thermofax and Verifax, and exuded a kind of charm rarely seen in a machine. The 914 also benefited from its link to a small but daring company, and so customers "endured indignities" they would not have accepted from 3M, Kodak, or IBM. They accepted glitches and breakdowns as "the price of an intoxicating new capability"--much as they did, two decades later, when the personal computer began to make its way into offices and homes.