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.
was born in Seattle on February 8, 1906, the only child of an itinerant barber. The family
settled in San Bernardino, Calif., and at the age of fourteen, Carlson was working after
school and on weekends as the chief support of his family. His father was crippled with
arthritis and his mother died of tuberculosis when he was seventeen.
Even as a boy, Carlson had the curious mind that always asked the how and why of
things. He was fascinated with the graphic arts and with chemistry -- two disciplines he
would eventually explore with remarkable result.
As a teenager he got a job working for a local printer, from whom he acquired, in
return for his labor, a small printing press about to be discarded. He used the press to
publish a little magazine for amateur chemists.
Upon graduating from high school, Carlson worked his way through a nearby junior
college where he majored in chemistry. He then entered California Institute of Technology,
and was graduated in two years with a degree in physics. More problems faced Carlson as he
entered a job market shattered by the developing Depression. He applied to eighty-two
firms, and received only two replies before landing a $35-a-week job as a research
engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City.
As the Depression deepened, he was laid off at Bell, worked briefly for a patent
attorney, and then secured a position with the electronics firm of PR. Mallory & Co.
While there, he studied law at night, earning a law degree from New York Law School.
Carlson was eventually promoted to manager of Mallory's patent department.
"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
Obeying the inventors 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
September, 1938. "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.
"Both of us repeated the experiment several times to convince ourselves that it
was true, then we made some permanent copies by transferring the powder images to wax
paper and heating the sheets to melt the wax. Then we went out to lunch and to
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
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.
Had he held onto it all, Carlson would have earned well over $150 million from his
remarkable invention. But before he died he had given away some $100 million to various
foundations and charities. During Carlson's last years he was given dozens of honors for
his pioneering work, including the Inventor of the Year in 1964 and the Horatio Alger
Award in 1966.