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."

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.

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.

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