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
Simon & Schuster; 306 pp; $24
The photocopier falls into the category of common things we take for granted, such as air, water, and Google. Walk up to the machine, put your original on the glass, and push the button. The marvelous gizmo has become so tightly woven into our daily lives that we notice it only when it is out of order.
But sometimes, writes David Owen in Copies in Seconds, his account of the invention and development of the Xerox machine, it is "interesting to speculate what life would be like if some conspicuous element of it were removed." In his vision of a world without photocopiers, there would be: larger forests, no Pentagon Papers, fewer lawyers, better memories, more secrets, and "a lot less information in general."
Owen, a New Yorker staff writer and the author of numerous books, is not the first to tell the tale of the invention of photocopying by Chester Carlson (BW -- June 7) and its commercialization by the company that came to be called Xerox Corp (XRX
). Besides a few books mostly published in the late 1960s and early 1970s, there have been a number of magazine articles on the topic, including one the author wrote almost two decades ago in The Atlantic Monthly. But through prodigious reporting and deft writing, Owen paints a fresh and compelling portrait of Carlson. He also offers a dramatic account of the race by a band of engineers and scientists to make a working machine before anyone else did.
Owen begins his story at the beginning. Not Carlson's beginning, in Seattle, 1906 -- that comes later -- but 500 years ago, with the origins of printing. For most people, the high points in the history of duplication go something like this: monks' hand-lettering, the Gutenberg Bible, carbon paper, Xerox. But in truth, great thinkers over five centuries had been trying to solve the puzzle that Carlson finally cracked: how to make an exact replica of an existing document.
The hunt covered many paths, and the searchers included some of the world's finest inventors. Devised along the way were everything from engraving techniques, including lithography -- a descendant of which was used to print the magazine you are reading -- to Thomas Edison's Automatic Press and Electric Pen, blueprinting, photography, and, finally, the combination of carbon paper and typewriters.
None of these quite fit the bill: With a postwar economic boom came rising demand for a true copying solution. Chester Carlson had found one in 1938, but it took 22 years for his discovery to be turned into a marketable product. That story comprises the heart of Owen's book.
While many doubted that Carlson's process, based on electrostatic charges and photoconductivity, could really work consistently, he remained steadfast. His resolve was rooted in a childhood marked by dire poverty, ailing parents, frequent moves, and a loneliness that left him both shy and independent. For a period after his mother's death, Carlson and his father, who was wracked by tuberculosis and arthritis, lived in a former chicken coop. By the time Carlson entered high school he had become the family breadwinner. "Invention," he is quoted as saying, "was one chance to start with nothing and end up with a fortune."
Absorbing as Carlson's rags-to-riches story is, one of the book's best sections is dominated by others: the dozens of little-known chemists, physicists, engineers, and businessmen who in the 1940s and '50s brought Carlson's patented device to life. Some, such as engineer Edward Wise, were at Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, which early on saw the potential of Carlson's idea and became its agent. Others, such as CEO Joseph C. Wilson, were at Haloid Co., the Rochester (N.Y.) company that later became Xerox and commercialized the invention. These individuals faced an exhausting array of challenges, from figuring out the appropriate optical lenses to keeping the device cool so the paper didn't catch fire. The toner, for example, had to melt fast yet not be so soft that it would smear. It had to be a fine powder to create sharp images, but if it was too fine, that caused other problems. "The more you understand about xerography," pioneering Xerox engineer Bob Gundlach tells Owen, "the more you are amazed that it works."
Owen gracefully conveys just how important solving the engineering puzzle was to Gundlach and the others involved. Racing against time as Carlson's patent ran out -- and against the criticism of detractors -- the quest became, for many, the defining moment of their careers, if not their lives. If Copies in Seconds has a shortcoming, it's that it focuses too much on Carlson and not enough on these intriguing tinkerers and gutsy businessmen.
Some might argue that, in the Digital Age, the book's topic has become quaint. But in the midst of today's media overload, Copies in Seconds reminds us how hard people fought to democratize information -- and how quickly we've come to take it for granted. By Nanette Byrnes