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.