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Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine

Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine

by David Owen

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A lone inventor and the story of how one of the most revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century almost didn't happen.
Introduced in 1960, the first plain-paper office copier is unusual among major high-technology inventions in that its central process was conceived by a single person. Chester Carlson grew up in unspeakable poverty, worked his way


A lone inventor and the story of how one of the most revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century almost didn't happen.
Introduced in 1960, the first plain-paper office copier is unusual among major high-technology inventions in that its central process was conceived by a single person. Chester Carlson grew up in unspeakable poverty, worked his way through junior college and the California Institute of Technology, and made his discovery in solitude in the depths of the Great Depression. He offered his big idea to two dozen major corporations — among them IBM, RCA, and General Electric — all of which turned him down. So persistent was this failure of capitalistic vision that by the time the Xerox 914 was manufactured, by an obscure photographic-supply company in Rochester, New York, Carlson's original patent had expired.
Xerography was so unusual and nonintuitive that it conceivably could have been overlooked entirely. Scientists who visited the drafty warehouses where the first machines were built sometimes doubted that Carlson's invention was even theoretically feasible. Building the first plain-paper office copier — with parts scrounged from junkyards, cleaning brushes made of hand-sewn rabbit fur, and a built-in fire extinguisher — required the persistence, courage, and imagination of an extraordinary group of physicists, engineers, and corporate executives whose story has never before been fully told.
Copies in Seconds is a tale of corporate innovation and risk-taking at its very best.

Editorial Reviews

The New Yorker
This history of the Xerox copier starts with its inventor, a Caltech graduate named Chester Carlson, who in 1938 made the first xerographic reproduction—a piece of waxed paper that read “10-22-38 Astoria.” Xerography was difficult to perfect, requiring a coördinated ballet of paper-handling and electric charge, and it was more than twenty years before the first commercial copier, Model 914, went into production. An ungainly machine, it imparted electric shocks and used rabbit fur as a key part, but it solved a centuries-old problem—making document reproduction possible without a roomful of monks or a collection of foul-smelling chemicals. One-touch copying (and its evil twin, the paper jam) was born. Owen has a knack for explaining technical innovations in layman’s terms, and he vividly conveys the magnitude of Xerox’s coup: in 1961, when a television ad showed a young girl making copies, a competitor demanded proof that she was not a midget.
David Walton
Owen, a staff writer at The New Yorker, tells the story with a great deal of heart, grace and enthusiasm.
The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
As New Yorker staff writer Owen explains in this fast-paced account of one inventor's hopes and dreams, the technology of copying is a relatively modern phenomenon. He recounts the history of copying documents from the scribal work of monks to the invention of the printing press and lithography, to the process that eventually resulted in today's Xerox machine. Owen narrates the life story of the man behind the Xerox machine, Chester Carlson (1906-1968), and his lonely efforts to find a way to reproduce documents. An inventive soul from a young age, Carlson as a teenager sketched out concepts for a trick safety pin, a new type of lipstick and a disposable handkerchief made of soft paper. After he graduated from college, he went to work for Bell Laboratories and continued his inventive ways. When he finally landed on an electrostatic process that would act like both a printing press and a camera, he began to shop the concept around and the Xerox machine was born in the mid-'50s. Owen's sympathetic portrait of Carlson's life and the difficulties and rewards inherent in the inventive process provide a window into the birth of one of our most ubiquitous office machines. Agent, Susan Shulman. (Aug.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This work compares the impact of the copier, or Xerox machine, to that of Gutenberg's printing press, and many of us who use copiers daily would agree. A staff writer for The New Yorker, Owen tells the story of Chester Carlson, the man behind the copier, using Carlson's family archives, private Xerox company records, and interviews; it is fascinating to see the lonely inventor pursuing a way to reproduce documents. Between 1938 and the mid-1950s, big corporations like IBM, RCA, and GE all turned down the chance to make and market Carlson's electrostatic process, which acted as both a printing press and a camera. This story includes lessons for every entrepreneur, and Owen's sensitive and captivating portrait of the self-effacing Carlson will enable readers to understand the ordeal every inventor faces in making his idea a reality. Recommended for most collections.-Susan C. Awe, Univ. of New Mexico Lib., Albuquerque Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
New Yorker staff writer Owen (The Making of the Masters, 1999, etc.) fluidly recounts the story of the "most successful product ever marketed in America."That's according to Forbes, but Owen's lapidary prose is far more pleasurable than that magazine's breathless pages. Whether he's explaining the rudiments of home improvement (The Walls Around Us, 1991) or the evolution of the copying machine, he makes the unlikeliest suspects into appealing tales. The action this time centers on Chester Carlson, son of grinding poverty and the visionary behind the photocopier, a nonintuitive idea if there ever was one. Though Owen makes it clear that there were a good handful of individuals who lent critical insights to the project, Carlson's perseverance was particularly remarkable. Time and again, his invention was on the brink of oblivion, time and again he managed to secure funding or find a niche that the machine (ever in the process of refinement) could fill to sustain the work in progress. Along the way, Owen rolls out the evolution of the copying process, starting with Sumerian scribes, moving through monks and machines-intaglio, lithography, the hectograph, pantograph, and polygraph (Thomas Jefferson thought this last, an early copier, was indispensable to democracy)-to the critical discoveries of aniline dyes and a sort of proto-carbon paper that helped lead to the first xerographic copy in 1938. But no one wanted to join the young company as a partner in manufacturing, and RCA tried to make an end run around Xerox patents, though it got nowhere. The photocopying process is not a simple thing to understand; photoelectricity, a building block of the copier, is so arcane, for instance, that"Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for having explained it in 1905." To Owen's abiding credit, he makes it all intelligible in this rich business history. Weirdly attention-grabbing. What Witold Rybczynski did for the screwdriver, Owen does for the photocopier. (Photos and illustrations)

Product Details

Simon & Schuster
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8.32(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.83(d)

Read an Excerpt


We ourselves are copies. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." A living organism, from its DNA up, is a copying machine. The essence of life — the difference between us and sand — is replication.

Copying is the engine of civilization: culture is behavior duplicated. The oldest copier invented by people is language, the device by which an idea of yours becomes an idea of mine. We are distinct from chimpanzees because speech, through its irrepressible power of reproduction, multiplied our thoughts into thinking.

The second great copying machine was writing. When the Sumerians transposed spoken words into stylus marks on clay tablets, they exponentially extended the human network that language had created. Writing freed copying from the chain of living contact. It made thinking permanent, portable, and endlessly reproducible.

Civilization has evolved at the speed of duplication. One mark in clay became two; two became four; four became eight. Like all doubling, copying accumulates slowly at first but compounds. Less than a millennium ago — forty centuries after the Sumerians — a single literate polyglot theoretically could have read every book in the world; today, copied language constitutes so much of the intangible infrastructure of existence that we consciously register only glimpses of the shadow of its shadow. A newsstand in Manhattan contains more duplicated text than did the legendary Library of Alexandria.

The earliest written documents were simple tallies: so many animals, so much grain. For centuries, that was all the writing in the world. Last week, a small plastic latch broke off my clothes dryer. I copied the number molded into its side and searched for it on Google. Less than a second later, my computer screen filled with a list of suppliers all over the country, with links to their inventories and their prices, along with half a dozen portals into a galaxy of intricately cross-referenced self-promotion. Behind the copied words on the screen lay invisible sentences of ones and zeros, and behind the ones and zeros lay a babel of electrical impulses and magnetic fields: the ultimate modern repository of replicable meaning. I chose a likely supplier, found the part I needed, and with a couple of clicks transmitted a copy of a stored description of myself that was more detailed than any a Sumerian could have produced of anyone he knew: my name, my exact location in the world, a partial history of my material desires, access to my treasure. Two days later, I installed the new part on my clothes dryer.

The world we live in — as distinct from the world we live on — is made of duplicated language. We build our lives from copies of copies of copies.

Copyright © 2004 by David Owen

Meet the Author

David Owen plays in a weekly foursome, takes mulligans off the first tee, practices intermittently at best, wore a copper wristband because Steve Ballesteros said so, and struggles for consistency even though his swing is consistent — just mediocre. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a contributing editor to Golf Digest, and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly. His other books include The First National Bank of Dad, The Chosen One, The Making of the Masters, and My Usual Game. He lives in Washington, Connecticut.

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