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Fascinating facts about the invention
of Xerography by Chester Carlson in 1938.
XEROGRAPHY
This, "10-22-38 ASTORIA", humble legend marks the time and place of an auspicious event. It is the text of the first xerographic image ever fashioned.
It was created in a makeshift laboratory in Queens, NY. by a patent attorney named Chester Carlson, who believed that the world was ready for an easier and less costly way to make copies. Carlson was proved right only after a discouraging ten-year search for a company that would develop his invention into a useful product. It was the Haloid Company, a small photo-paper maker in Rochester, N.Y, which took on the challenge and the promise of xerography and thus became, in a breathtakingly short time, the giant multinational company now known to the world as Xerox Corporation. Xerox 914 copier photo courtesy Xerox Corporation
Xerography, the technology which started the office copying revolution, was born unheralded on October 22, 1938, the inspiration of a single man working in his spare time. When he died in 1968 at the age of 62, Chester Carlson was a wealthy and honored man, Xerox annual revenues were approaching the billion dollar mark, and the whole world was making copies at the push of a button.

The astounding success of xerography is all the more remarkable because it was given little hope of surviving its infancy. For years, it seemed to be an invention nobody wanted. To know why it eventually prevailed is to understand the mind of Chester Carlson. For xerography, and the man who invented it, were both the products of hardship and travail.

"I had my job," he recalled, "but I didn't think I was getting ahead very fast. I was just living from hand to mouth, and I had just gotten married. It was kind of a struggle, so I thought the possibility of making an invention might kill two birds with one stone: It would be a chance to do the world some good and also a chance to do myself some good." As he worked at his job, Carlson noted that there never seemed to be enough carbon copies of patent specifications, and there seemed to be no quick or practical way of getting more. The choices were limited to sending for expensive photo copies, or having the documents retyped and then reread for errors. A thought occurred to him: Offices might benefit from a device that would accept a document and make copies of it in seconds. For many months Carlson spent his evenings at the New York Public Library reading all he could about imaging processes. He decided immediately not to research in the area of conventional photography, where light is an agent for chemical change, because that phenomenon was already being exhaustively explored in research labs of large corporations.

Obeying the inventor’s instinct to travel the uncharted course, Carlson turned to the little-known field of photoconductivity, specifically the findings of Hungarian physicist Paul Selenyi, who was experimenting with electrostatic images. He learned that when light strikes a photoconductive material, the electrical conductivity of that material is increased.

Soon, though, he began some rudimentary experiments, beginning first -- to his wife's aggravation -- in the kitchen of his apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. It was here that Carlson unearthed the fundamental principles of what he called electrophotography --later to be named xerography -- and defined them in a patent application filed in October of 1937. "I knew," he said, "that I had a very big idea by the tail, but could I tame it?"

So he set out to reduce his theory to practice. Frustrated by a lack of time, and suffering from painful attacks of arthritis, Carlson decided to dip into his meager resources to pursue his research. He set up a small lab in nearby Astoria and hired an unemployed young physicist, a German refugee named Otto Kornei, to help with the lab work.

It was here, in a rented second-floor room above a bar, where xerography was invented. This is Carlson's account of that moment: "I went to the lab that day and Otto had a freshly-prepared sulfur coating on a zinc plate. We tried to see what we could do toward making a visible image.

Otto took a glass microscope slide and printed on it in India ink the notation '10-22-38 ASTORIA.'"We pulled down the shade to make the room as dark as possible, then he rubbed the sulfur surface vigorously with a handkerchief to apply an electrostatic charge, laid the slide on the surface and placed the combination under a bright incandescent lamp for a few seconds. The slide was then removed and lycopodium powder was sprinkled on the sulfur surface. By gently blowing on the surface, all the loose powder was removed and there was left on the surface a near-perfect duplicate in powder of the notation which had been printed on the glass slide.

Fearful that others might be blazing the same trail as he -- which is not an uncommon occurrence in the history of scientific discovery -- Carlson carefully patented his ideas as he learned more about this new technology. His fear was unfounded. Carlson was quite alone in his work, and in his belief that xerography was of practical value to anyone. He pounded the pavement for years in a fruitless search for a company that would develop his invention into a useful product.

From 1939 to 1944, he was turned down by more than twenty companies. Even the National Inventors Council dismissed his work. "Some were indifferent," he recalled, "several expressed mild interest, and one or two were antagonistic. How difficult it was to convince anyone that my tiny plates and rough image held the key to a tremendous new industry. "The years went by without a serious nibble.. .I became discouraged and several times decided to drop the idea completely. But each time I returned to try again. I was thoroughly convinced that the invention was too promising to be dormant."

Finally, in 1944, Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit research organization, became interested, signed a royalty-sharing contract with Carlson, and began to develop the process. And in 1947, Battelle entered into an agreement with a small photo-paper company called Haloid (later to be known as Xerox), giving Haloid the right to develop a xerographic machine.

It was not until 1959, twenty-one years after Carlson invented xerography, that the first convenient office copier using xerography was unveiled. The 914 copier could make copies quickly at the touch of a button on plain paper. It was a phenomenal success. Today, xerography is a foundation stone of a gigantic worldwide copying industry, including Xerox and other corporations which make and market copiers and duplicators producing billions and billions of copies a year. And to Carlson, who had endured and struggled for so long, came fame, wealth and honor, all of which he accepted with a grace and modesty much in keeping with his shy and quiet personality.

TO LEARN MORE

RELATED INFORMATION:
Chester Carlson Biography   from The Great Idea Finder
History of Office Equipment   from The Great Idea Finder

ON THE BOOKSHELF:
Chester Carlson and the Development of Xerography
by Susan Zannos /  Library Binding: 56 pages / Mitchell Lane Publishers, Inc.; (August 2002)
Carlson spent most of his years in poverty. When the Xerox Model 914 was finally introduced in 1959 and became a success, Carlson became a multimillionaire. But he was never particularly interested in money and gave most of it away before he died in 1968.
How Breakthroughs Happen: The Surprising Truth About How Companies Innovate
by Andrew Hargadon, Kathleen M. Eisenhardt / Hardcover: 272 pages / Harvard Business School Press; (June 5, 2003)
Takes the reader beyond the simple recognition that revolutionary innovations do not result from flashes of brilliance by lone inventors or organizations. In fact, innovation is really about creatively recombining ideas, people, and objects from past technologies in ways that spark new technological revolutions.

Copies in Seconds : How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg--Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine
by David Owen /  Hardcover: 320 pages / Simon & Schuster; (August 1, 2004)
Availability: This item has not yet been released (August 1, 2004). You may order it now and we will ship it to you when it arrives.

ON THE WEB:
Xerox
The Document Company official web site. Extensive historical information available.

(URL: www.xerox.com)

University of Rochester Libraries
Bibliography of publications about Chester F. Carlson and a list of Patents received.
(URL: lib.rochester.edu/index.cfm?PAGE=399
)
20th Century Top 100 Inventions
The process was developed in 1938 by Chester Carlson, an employee at a New York electronics firm who was frustrated by the difficulty of copying documents. Fram Time magazine reader poll.
(URL: www.time.com/time/time100/builder/tech_supp/xerox.html)
Copiers
SciTech, Carbons to Computers series from the Smithsonian Institution. Chester Carlton's discovery of the effect of light in photoconductivity, however, led to the unprecedented success of the "Xerox" machine.
(URL: www.smithsonianeducation.org/scitech/carbons/copiers.html)

Invention Dimension - Inventor of the Week
Celebrates inventor/innovator role models through outreach activities and annual awards to inspire a new generation of American scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs.
(URL: web.mit.edu/invent/iow/carlson.html))
National Inventors Hall of Fame
The National Inventors Hall of Fame honors the women and men responsible for the great technological advances that make human, social and economic progress possible.
(URL: www.invent.org/hall_of_fame/27.html)

Yesterday's Office
The Photocopier: First Image from Moss, Sulfur and a Handkerchief Rubbing
(URL: www.yesterdaysoffice.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=ShowArticle&articleid=26
)
The Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science
This  is an academic unit in the College of Science of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

(URL: www.cis.rit.edu)

HOW IT WORKS:
The original document is moved automatically from the document handler to the platen (under the document handler), where it is projected by a system of lamps, mirrors and lenses onto the photoreceptor belt. The belt carries a charge of static electricity that is discharged in those areas receiving light from the projected image. The charge remaining forms a latent, invisible image.

Magnetic rollers brush the belt with dry ink that is, itself, charged with static electricity of opposite polarity. This charge makes the dry ink cling to the latent image on the photoreceptor, making the image visible.

A sheet of copy paper moves from a paper to the belt. As it approaches the belt, the paper, too, is given a charge of static electricity. This charge has the same polarity as the charge on the belt, but it is strong enough to attract the dry ink forming the image away from the belt. The copy then goes between two rollers that apply heat and pressure, fusing the dry-ink image into the paper. The completed copy emerges at an output station.

DID YOU KNOW:

  • The historic patent for electrophotography, later called xerography, was filed April 4, 1939, several months after Carlson made the first xerographic image. It was issued Oct. 6, 1942 as number 2,297,691.
  • It was not until 1959, twenty-one years after Carlson invented xerography, that the first convenient office copier using xerography was unveiled.
  • In 1965, at the commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the U.S. patent system, he gave some of his original equipment, as well as that first xerographic print, to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is on display.
  • In the late 1980s, Xerox corporation copied more than 20 million pages in one year, just to see if its machines worked.
Reference Sources in BOLD Type This page revised February, 2005.
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