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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And there were television advertisements as well, very clever ones created by George Lois, a key figure in Madison Avenue's Golden Age. These showed that a child--even a trained chimpanzee--could operate a 914 with confident ease. Inside, the 914--like the copiers of today--was an impressive system of lens, mirrors, and rotating parts. But outside it displayed just four moving parts: a PRINT button, ON and OFF buttons, and a dial for selecting up to fifteen copies. It became one of the most swiftly successful industrial products of all time, generating profit margins of 70 per cent.

Xerox, awash with cash, soon introduced the 813--a desktop version of the 914--and the 2400, which produced 2,400 copies an hour. By 1965 Xerox had become the fifteenth-largest publicly owned corporation in the United States. Less than ten years before, it was one of the runts in a litter of Rochester photographic firms. Now it was bigger than Chrysler, RCA, and U.S. Steel.

In 1970 Xerox opened its Palo Alto Research Center, where the tradition of Chester Carlson was invoked and expected to preside. It was in Palo Alto, during the 1970s, that Xerox invented--or "nearly" invented, as Owen puts it--the personal computer, the computer mouse, and the laser printer. But the company didn't reap what it sowed. For a variety of reasons, these products were never developed into serious commercial products by Xerox itself.

The giant company lumbered through the 1980s and 1990s, scaring shareholders and demoralizing employees along the way. The ups and downs of Xerox have been widely described and analyzed by business journalists, who have identified the firm's abrupt growth as a key reason for its subsequent troubles. Owen also cites increasing competition and a series of managerial mistakes, not least the decision, during the 1980s, to diversify the firm far beyond its core offerings. Xerox is once again calling itself "the Document Company," drawing on its history, but its detours into other businesses--like financial services--have often hurt its reputation and bottom line.

AND WHAT of Carlson? In 1945 he married Dorris Hudgins, a secretary and the daughter of a tug-boat captain. The pair honeymooned in Washington, D.C., partly so that Carlson--not, apparently, a conventionally romantic type--could spend time visiting his favorite tourist attraction, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Carlson's invention and his contractual connection to Haloid made him, by any measure, rich; by the late 1960s his worth was well over $100 million.

But for Carlson, the struggle for success was apparently much more compelling than success itself. On his way to becoming one of the richest men in America, he bought a new Studebaker, some Hickey Freeman suits, and a comfortable, modest house in the Rochester suburbs. He told Dorris to buy what she liked, but he wanted very few things for himself. As Owen notes, Carlson often remarked that he would be just as happy living in a trailer, and that his goal was to die as poor as he began. "His real wealth," Dorris recalled, "seemed to be composed of the number of things he could easily do without."

Thus Carlson began one of the great careers in American philanthropy, carefully donating large sums, often anonymously, to many individuals and institutions, including Caltech, the United Nations, and the United Negro College Fund. He "gave money to schools, hospitals, libraries, and international relief agencies," Owen writes, "and quietly paid off the mortgages of impoverished old ladies."

Although Owen doesn't say so explicitly, it's clear that Carlson's bleak and unsettled childhood had marked him indelibly. As an adult Carlson showed an obsessive, continuous preoccupation with order and routine: He relished "the sort of fussy activities that most people dread." Carlson was a great compiler of lists and logs; "whenever he bought gasoline," Owen writes, "he recorded the date, the car's mileage, the location, and the cost." He took special pleasure in the annual Festival of Forms sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service. Invariably on New Year's Day, Dorris recalled, right after breakfast, Carlson would announce gleefully, "well, now today I begin the income tax."

Carlson was also known for his humor, collegiality, and remarkably self-effacing ways. Owen describes Carlson attending the 1958 World's Fair in Brussels. He went to the Xerox booth, where he found a young salesman describing the promise of xerography and highlighting the life of its brilliant and determined inventor. Carlson, unrecognized, stood by listening quietly.

When the salesman finished, Carlson simply said thank you and walked away, to the surprise of a colleague, who suggested that the salesman would have surely been pleased to meet the great man whose life story he had just recounted. "He might have been happy for a little while," Carlson replied, "but it was his story and his show, and I would have been taking the light away from him and putting it on myself."

To his credit, David Owen recognizes that a person can be interesting without being, well, interesting. Copies in Seconds is an effective tribute to a man who conceived one of the twentieth century's great inventions; in fact, "in the years following Carlson's discovery, the few people who came up with truly similar ideas were able to do so only after studying Carlson's patent specifications, and their innovations were merely variations on themes he had long since defined." The book is also a tribute to a man who, during times of struggle and success, remained true to the crucial virtues.

Brian Murray teaches writing at Loyola College in Maryland.