Chester Carlson: 1906 – 1968

Chester Carlson invented xerography in 1938. Here he is demonstrating a prototype of the technology.

At age 20, I worked in the basement copy center of the NYU Law School as a college work-study employee. I learned to operate the systems used to duplicate legal documents for law professors and their students. For example, I ran the Xerox 9600; it had a document feeder, image zoom, two-sided copying, a 50-copy sorter, an electronic control panel and a series of sensors to detect paper jams.

I suppose there is significance to the fact that I remember far more about those copiers than I do about the legal documents being copied. I spent most of my free time experimenting, copying my own stuff and pushing those machines to their limits.

Xerox 9500 with sorter; I worked on a system very similar to this in the copy center at New York University Law School in 1979-80.

Like most people, I took “xeroxing” for granted; I thought it was a fact of life and didn’t understanding where it came from. Only years later did I learn that xerography was a modern form of print technology; it was revolutionary when it was invented and its significance has continued to expand since then. As I think about it now, I am struck that the same distance of time (31 yeas) stands between today and my days at the NYU copy center in 1980 as between that time and the date of the first commercially available Xerox copier in 1949.

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Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, was born on February 8, 1906 in Seattle, Washington. His early years were filled with hardship. His family was poor and his father suffered from multiple illnesses. Chester began working to support his family at the age of eight. When his mother died of TB, Chester was just 17. He would later say, “That is the worst thing that ever happened to me. I so wanted to be able to give her a few things in life.”

Chester developed an early interest in printing. He started a newspaper called This and That at the age of ten and circulated it among his friends. He used a Simplex Typewriter to set type one character at a time. He said of this experience, “I was impressed with the tremendous amount of labor involved with getting something into print … and I got to thinking about duplicating methods.”

Chester excelled in math and science and was encouraged by teachers to continue on after high school. He attended Riverside Junior College and then Caltech, graduating with a BS in Physics in 1930. Chester took his first job with Bell Labs in New York City as a research engineer. He would later transfer to the patent department as an assistant and turned his attention to document management. Chester recalled, “The need for a quick, satisfactory copying machine that could be used right in the office seemed very apparent to me … So I set out to think of how one could be made.”

Chester’s work on an office copier began in the mid-1930s. He conducted experiments with the help of Austrian physicist Otto Kornei and their first major breakthrough was achieved on October 22, 1938. They successfully transferred an image from a microscope slide to a sheet of wax paper using an electrostatic charge and some organic powder. Initially calling the process electron photography, Chester later commented, “The powder image was adhering to the plate by virtue of relatively small, but nevertheless real, electrostatic forces.”

The first xerographic image produced by Chester Carlson and Otto Kornei.

With the help of a law degree obtained from the New York Law School in 1939, Chester successfully patented electrophotography in 1942. He tried to sell the concept to companies he thought might be interested in its commercial development. He wrote to more than 20 companies—including GE, IBM, AB Dick and RCA—none of which took him up. He described their response as “an enthusiastic lack of interest.”

In 1946, with the assistance of Battelle Memorial Institute of Columbus, Ohio, Chester finally convinced researchers and executives at The Haloid Company of Rochester, New York to sign a $10,000 contract to license electrophotography. Marketing concerns turned Haloid to search for a better product name and xerography was suggested; the combination of the Greek words xeros (dry) and graphein (writing).

The Haloid Company brought the Xerox Model A Copier to market in 1949, eleven years after Chester Carlson’s discovery. However, it was not a commercial success. It would take another eleven years (and many technological developments) before the fully automated Xerox 914 would become a huge hit as the first plain paper office copier. By 1962, ten thousand units had been sold and by 1968, revenues for Haloid Xerox had reached $500 million.

By 1965 Chester Carlson was worth several hundred million dollars from royalties on his patents, making him one of wealthiest people in America. However, Chester spent years quietly giving away most of his fortune to charities. He died of a heart attack at the age of 62 on September 19, 1968.

Chester Carlson’s invention—which took two decades to convert into a viable product—is used today in tens of millions of photocopying machines and laser printers as well as digital printing systems such as the Xerox iGen and Xeikon press. Along with digital ink jet printing devices, xerographic systems are slowly unseating traditional offset lithography as the dominant technologies of the printing industry.

QR Codes & the future of offline media

By now you are familiar with QR Codes; those two dimensional bar codes scanned by mobile devices. They are popping up everywhere: billboards, catalogs, magazine ads, real estate signs, t-shirts, product packaging and business cards. One of the more creative uses of a QR Code is on the movie poster for Iron Man 2, where the code resolves to a mobile site with photos, trailers and information about the film.

You may also know that the US Postal Service is offering a 3% discount on mail that contains a QR Code through the end of August. You can find the USPS promotion here.

Quick Response (QR) Codes were first developed in 1994 by the Japanese firm Denso Wave to track parts in the vehicle manufacturing process at Toyota. The technology was unique because the codes could be read rapidly regardless of the orientation of the scanner. Also, while other two dimensional bar codes require a license for use, the QR Code is free and code generators can be easily found on the Web.

Japan is currently the largest user and QR Codes are the de facto standard for Japanese mobile phones. Generally speaking, the codes are used more widely in countries where mobile culture is highly developed. It is a peculiar fact of life that technological development is not repeated through the same stages in every country. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that some countries never experienced landline telephone technology and have jumped straight into our mobile world.

In the US, QR Codes are being used in growing numbers for marketing and communications campaigns.  A recent study of QR code adoption by showed:

  • Worldwide QR Code use more than quadrupled between 2009 and 2010.
  • In Q4 2010, the US had the highest number of QR Code scans of any country  (except Japan, where data was not available for the study).
  • Canada, Hong Kong and Germany had exponential growth of QR Code scans.

As Philip Warbasse of—a company specializing in QR Code and mobile campaigns—explained, “Though we have a way to go before 2D codes completely go mainstream in the US, we are seeing a steady increase in their use in almost every industry. Thankfully, we are also beginning to see companies that have created QR Code campaigns in the past come to us for advice on how to better use them in the future. In reality, it’s not the code but, rather, the device that we focus on when we create mobile strategies at Print 2D.”

QR and 2D bar code campaigns are really only as good as the mobile content behind them, i.e. the success of a campaign is not only reflected in the novelty with which the QR Code itself is rendered; it is as much about the mobile content on the back end. The most successful QR Code/mobile campaigns follow these simple rules:

  • Mobilize the landing page
  • Use a short URL
  • Make the mobile content valuable

The expansion of QR Code use is part of the mobile revolution and the transformation of the way people all over the world consume information and media. Anyone doubting that mobile technologies will impact their business should consider the following (data from ITU):

  • There are more than 5.3 billion mobile subscriptions in the world today (77% of the world’s population)
  • 90% of the world now lives in a place with access to a mobile network

Meanwhile, explosion of mobile access worldwide—especially the adoption of smartphones—is being taken note of by marketers and advertisers. According to Gartner, the world’s leading information technology research company, worldwide mobile advertising spending will reach $3.3 billion this year and grow by a factor of more than six times to $20.6 billion by 2015. As with other forms of online advertising, the funds for these initiatives are being taken from budgets for traditional channels such as print and broadcast media.

Fortunately, the QR Code revolution is enhancing the value of print because it provides a link between offline media and that of the online, wireless world of mobile devices and instant information. The QR Code is one means print media has to maintain its relevance as a critical component of any integrated marketing and communications campaign.

Marshall McLuhan: 1911 – 1980

Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian educator and communications scholar, was born 100 years ago on July 21, 1911. McLuhan became a celebrity in the 1960s for his controversial media studies and peculiar perspective on television and its societal impact.

While you are likely familiar with McLuhan’s aphorism “the medium is the message,” you might not know that he was an expert on printing. Much of his writing deals with print media technology, its history and significance as a cultural form, especially the book. One of his most important titles, The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man (1962), examines prints’ contribution to the transformation of mankind’s self-image and consciousness during the Renaissance.

McLuhan was among the first to foresee the coming of electronic media. He had a prophetic view of the information age, one that anticipated the World Wide Web and digital publishing. His relevance to modern media studies is shown by the conferences being held worldwide on the centenary of his birth:

Herbert Marshall McLuhan was born in Edmonton, Alberta. His family moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba after World War I. In 1928, Marshall entered the University of Manitoba where earned an MA in English. He went on to the University of Cambridge where he earned a Ph.D. in 1943. Marshall married Corrine Lewis in 1939 and they had six children.

McLuhan and his family moved to Toronto in 1946 where he joined the faculty of St. Michael’s College of the University of Toronto. In the 1950s he began the Communication and Culture seminars, gaining a reputation as a media expert and, in 1963, the university created with him the Centre for Culture and Technology.

McLuhan became internationally known with the publication of Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964). He advanced the profound idea that “the ‘message’ of any medium or technology is the change of scale or pace or pattern that it introduces into human affairs.” He examined many forms of media: the written word, the printed word, the photograph, the telegraph, the typewriter, the telephone, the phonograph, movies, radio and television and showed how the content of one media is always another media form.

Marshall McLuhan suffered a stroke in 1979 that affected his speech. The University of Toronto attempted to close his research center shortly thereafter but was prevented by protests, most notably by Woody Allen. McLuhan never recovered and died on December 31, 1980.

Marshall McLuhan on the Today Show in September 1976.

Since McLuhan’s theoretical concepts are difficult to explain, I will let him do it himself. Below are quotations taken from TV interviews that can be viewed online.

On “hot” and “cold” media, 1964

“It has to do with the slang phrase ‘the hot and the cool’ … ‘Cool’ in the slang form has come to mean involved, deeply participative, deeply engaged; everything that we had formerly meant by heated … Though the idea that ‘cool’ has reversed its meaning I think has some bearing on the fact that our culture has shifted its stress on the demand that we become more committed, more involved.”

On the future of publishing, 1966

“Instead of going out and buying a book of which there have been 5,000 copies printed, you will go to the telephone and describe your interests, your needs, your problems … They will at once Xerox—with the help of computers from the libraries of the world—all the latest material just for you, personally, not as something to be put out on the bookshelf. They send you the package as a direct personal service.”

On instantaneous, simultaneous information, 1976

“At the speed of light there is no sequence, everything happens at one instant … We live in a world where everything is supposed to be lineal, one thing at a time, connected and logical, goal oriented. We are now living in a world which pushes the right hemisphere (of the brain) way up … is making the old left hemisphere world—which is our educational establishment, our political establishment—look very foolish.”

Admittedly, McLuhan’s academic style and references to historical and cultural artifacts make him difficult to read. However, McLuhan has made a unique contribution to an understanding of media and how they impact the cognitive functions and social organization of man. We should embrace and study Marshall McLuhan as the first philosopher of our multimedia world.