Marking the 75th Anniversary of 'Xerography'

Oct 4, 2013

Xerography - a word that is based on some Greek words meaning dry and writing, and it refers to a dry photocopying technique invented by Chester Carlson in 1938. Carlson was an inventor and a patent attorney, and some of his early experiments were done in his apartment in New York City.

A number of years before, Carlson talked about how he first conceived of the idea which would later transform the office environment:

“I had the idea of developing an office copier which had never been done before and I thought of a machine that could be set on a desk in an office to which one could bring an original to be copied and put it in the machine and push a button and get a copy out."

Sol  Linowitz served as chairman of Xerox in the 1960. He remembers that when he first saw the new technology, it was less than impressive.

“One of the scientists brought out a plate, rubbed it with some cat’s fur, took a transparent ruler, shined a light through it, put some powder on what came on the plate, and then held up a fuzzy few lines on a piece of paper and said, that’s it,” Linowitz recalled. “And I was incredulous, I agreed that was it, but I didn’t know what it was.”

But the company stuck with the technology and put money into research and development, according to Linowitz.

“This was the kind of a commitment which if it hadn’t worked, would have been a great disaster. It would have been a textbook case of how not to run a company.”

Frank Romano, professor of printing at RIT, notes that Carlson actually had offered the new technology to a number of large corporations.

“Actually, in fact he approached IBM, and IBM felt that there was not a big market on a worldwide basis,” Romano said. “It was only the little Haloid Company that saw some potential here and they worked like crazy, spent a fortune getting it developed. Then when the 914 came out in the 1960s, it changed everything.”

Xerox was founded in the early 1900s as the Haloid Photographic Company. It eventually changed its name to Haloid Xerox in 1958 and a few years later to just Xerox. Romano says it’s hard to overstate just how important Carlson’s contribution was:

“He invented the basis not only for copying, but for publishing,” Romano stated. “You have any idea how many publications were created with Xerox machines over the years, because you could take a whole batch of sheets, copy them and then bind them and you know had a publication of some sort. It was the beginning of on demand printing if you will.”

The technology developed by Chester Carlson was eventually used in the Xerox 914, a famous piece of equipment in Xerox history - it was the first plain paper copier using this new Xerographic process.

Another key figure in the early days of the Xerox Corporation was Joseph Wilson, a businessman and Rochesterian who succeeded his father as president of the Haloid Corporation. Wilson wanted to expand his photo copying business, and Wilson made a deal with Chet Carlson that was eventually broadened to include patents and rights to his machine.

You will notice the Carlson and Wilson names on many buildings around Rochester as part of the philanthropic efforts of those families. Joe Wilson’s daughter, Chris, says it’s such an important part of her father’s contribution to this community.

“Whether people remember him, my father’s been gone for many, many years, I get stories all the time, about the legacy that he left,” Wilson remembered.

October 6 is the 75th anniversary of Chester Carlson’s patent for the process that would be known as Xerography. Another key date is October 22, 1938 - when Carlson made his first xerographic copy in a rented second story room in Queens.

This month, Xerox says it will be kicking off a yearlong celebration of innovation and its role in the company’s history and future. Xerox people will be engaged in a number of activities celebrating and imagining the company’s future.

While Xerox has shifted its strategy in recent years to focus more on business services, it still does make equipment, including copiers. Despite the vast advances over the last 75 years in that technology, Romano says the basic concept is the same.

“Toner based printing is still based upon a particle of toner which is nothing more than some pigment surrounded by some plasticized material so it will then hold a charge, and then be moved by electrostatic forces.”

And despite the shift to electronic communications, Romano does not see the printed page going away any time soon.  He says there will still be a need for hard copies for some time to come, and even with the office environment changing, he notes that a lot of the printing that used to be done in offices is now done in your own home.