Sixty years have passed since the first time anyone performed a task that’s now done millions of times an hour: making a xerographic duplicate. With that first copy, a shy bespectacled inventor named Chester F. Carlson inaugurated a technology that each day gives untold numbers of office workers instant gratification. Carlson’s gratification as an inventor, on the other hand, required decades of patience.
Raised in poverty, Carlson earned a physics degree from Caltech in 1930. In the depths of the Great Depression, he couldn’t find work in physics; by 1934 he was submitting patents for a New York electronics firm by day and going to law school at night. The tedium of copying patent and legal material by hand bred in Carlson an obsessive desire to invent a cheap and easy method of duplicating documents.
Carlson pored over journals, mentally combining well-known physical principles into a process he called electrophotography. He first experimented in his kitchen, but the noxious fumes irritated his neighbors, so Carlson retreated to an Astoria, Queens, apartment owned by his mother-in-law. There, on October 22, 1938, he tested the complete process. He projected an image onto a positively charged metal plate. Where the light hit (the white areas of the image) the charge drained away. He dusted negatively charged toner powder across the plate, which stuck selectively to the dark areas of the image. He blew away the extra toner, and the plate was ready to print a copy onto positively charged paper. The world’s first electrophotographic image read simply “Astoria, 10-22-38.”
Though a tenacious tinkerer, Carlson was no salesman; it wasn’t until 1946 that the Rochester-based Haloid Company agreed to develop an electrophotographic machine. Haloid renamed Carlson’s concept “xerography “-from the Greek xeros for dry and graphein for writing or drawing. In 1960, Haloid-Xerox (soon to be Xerox) introduced the 914 copier, the first push-button, plain-paper, xerographic office machine.
The 914 revolutionized the workplace and brought its inventor fabulous wealth, but the father of fast document duplication preferred life in the slow lane. He lived modestly and, by the time of his death less than a decade later, had donated almost $100 million to causes ranging from Cal-tech to the promotion of Zen Buddhism.
Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.Subscribe today