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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Light and Static: The Origins of the Xerox Copy

September 21, 2015 Archive Insight

The world’s first xerographic image made by Chester Carlson and Otto Kornei (Image courtesy of Xerox Corporation, Xerox Images Library).

imls_logo_2cA date, and a place, written by hand: 10.-22.-38. Centered underneath: Astoria. The letters are composed of bold strokes, defined at the edges and flaking towards the center. The whole arrangement seems to be crumbling towards the bottom of the page, like it is made of dust that could be wiped away by the backstroke brush of a hand. Its purpose uncertain, this is not a “note to self” to be in a place, on a certain date—this is the first successful Xerox copy ever made.

The inventor of the modern photocopier, Chester Carlson, began thinking about mechanical reproduction and the graphic arts at a young age. His first publishing effort was a newspaper called This and That, circulated among family members when he was ten years old. The first edition was handwritten, with later issues composed on a Simplex typewriter given to him as a Christmas present in 1916. In high school, Carlson was forced to work multiple jobs in order to support his impoverished and ill family; one of these jobs found him sweeping floors at a printing shop. Working around printing machinery inspired him to publish a science journal, but the tedium of setting type by hand, line by line, led him to give up on this idea quickly. The machines did not support the quickness of his mind. It was in these frustrations with printing equipment—the fussiness of equipment that reproduced documents during his youth—that motivated Carlson to create the instantaneous printing process that would eventually be central to the creation of the Xerox photocopier.

Carlson would have used a wheeled Simplex Typewriter similar to this one as a child, when he first became inspired by the reproducing qualities of graphic arts machinery. THF157229

After graduating from high school, Carlson held multiple jobs while attending college, graduating with a BS in Physics from Caltech in 1930. He landed a job as a research engineer at Bell Laboratories, but found himself bored with the menial tasks he was assigned to, and realized that he was clumsy as a lab worker. Sensing that his strengths would be better applied in an “ideas” setting, he transferred into the patent department as an attorney’s assistant at Bell Labs, and then at P.R. Mallory & Co.

He observed that patent departments required copious amounts of copies, created through the use of carbon paper and an inefficient workforce—several secretaries would often work at copying the same information. And when he began to take law classes, suffering from writer’s cramp caused by the necessity to copy texts by hand for study, Carlson’s mind strayed back to the problem of fast, clean, mechanical reproduction.

Kitchen and Closet Laboratories

Though Carlson had not yet refined the physical process of electrophotography, his work as a patent lawyer taught him the importance of protecting his idea. This patent, filed in 1939, covered all aspects of the process that would later be named xerography (US Patent: US2297691 A).

In 1938, Carlson was short on money and living with his wife and in-laws. In their shared home in Jackson Heights, Queens, NY, he began his experiments with photoconductive printing in the kitchen. The byproducts of his early home experiments gone awry—the eggy stench of burnt sulfur and a bathtub stained by resin powder—were less than popular with his wife and mother-in-law. Ultimately, Carlson, a brilliant thinker, needed help to make electrophotography a tenable reality.

In 1938, he filed a patent to protect his idea for the process, and while awaiting its approval, hired an electrical engineer named Otto Kornei to help refine the physical process. Hiring an employee brought an end to the kitchen experiments, and Carlson rented a tiny room above a bar in Astoria, Queens for a dedicated laboratory (still standing today, the lower floor now houses a pizza parlor). In a room so small that it had once acted as a janitor’s closet, the experiments continued.

Carlson was convinced that the key to solving his problem was to be found in the collision of electrical and photographic processes. In a nutshell, the successful solution to xerography was discovered by using the chemical element, selenium. In the dark, selenium acts as an electrical insulator, and in the light, it acts as a conductor. In Carlson’s process, a printed document exposed to a beam of light is reflected as an electrical shadow onto an aluminum drum coated with selenium. The original document is transferred to the drum as areas of positive charge (dark areas of image) and negative charge (light areas of image). Black dry toner is attracted to the statically charged areas, transferred to paper, and fused into place by heat.

Kornei’s electrical and chemical knowledge, in combination with Carlson’s ideas, produced the first xerographic copy on October 22, 1938—just a little over two weeks after Kornei was hired. When Carlson hit the pavement to sell the idea to companies for development, he once again suffered a poor timing setback: it was the height of WWII. The Battelle Memorial Institute, however, saw the potential for military applications of electrophotography. Carlson signed off on his patents under the arrangement that Battelle would develop his idea into a saleable product, and he would be kept on as a consultant—a position he would maintain for the remainder of his life. But by 1947, with WWII over, Carlson’s idea seemed to languish at Battelle until Haloid, a photographic paper company and owners of the Rectigraph, revived the research. On the success of Carlson’s idea, they would become Haloid Xerox in 1958, and by 1961—just Xerox.

The “Ox Box” to the 914

The culture of the copy was not born in a vacuum. Reaching back far enough into history, the first way to produce a copy was by human hand. Monks in the medieval age working in open air scriptoriums were capable of copying approximately 5000 characters a day, but this technique had no hope of competing with the timeline of efficiency found in printing and copy presses, typewriters, photography, and eventually—xerography.

Rotary Mimeograph No. 77A, 1913-1930. THF158455

There were predecessors that attempted to make duplication an easier process. James Watt (best for his Newcomen steam engine improvements), patented a copy press in 1780 that could take several impressions of a document by sandwiching paper under a high pressure platen. Watt’s press was used until the late 1920s, but required the use of special ink and fresh copies to work. In 1885, Alvah Bushnell created the “Perfect Letter Copying Book,” which sandwiched a document between thick manila paper and a damp piece of muslin, rolled up into a tube under high pressure to take an impression. In the 19th century, typewriters, carbon paper, blueprints, and electric pens were additional options for reproduction. The mimeograph and spirit duplicators (known as dittos) were widespread, but required stencils and wet ink. In the early 1950s, copy machines like 3M’s Thermofax and Kodak’s Verifax were in wide use, but produced documents with a penchant to curl and fade. They were expensive to use due to the need for treated paper, and the smell of process sometimes literally lingered.

Portable Letter Copying Press, circa 1890. This press produces copies in a similar way as Bushnell’s “Perfect Letter Copying Book,” by applying pressure to a rolled up document. THF161488

In 1949, Haloid released the first commercial product to make use of Carlson’s electrophotography process: the XeroX Model A Copier, more commonly known by its nickname—“The Ox Box.” The prototype version was made of a series of four boxes, taking up the space of a modern-day compact automobile. And its operation was finicky. Sheets of paper carrying dry toner had to be delicately removed and placed under radiant heat to fuse the image for exactly two seconds—any more time and the paper could burst into flame. The commercial version, while condensed into one and a half boxes, still required over forty manual operations, resulting in lukewarm sales among businesses.

The Xerox 914 photocopier is the basis of all photocopying office technology. THF159612

The Xerox 914 was a far cry from the Model A. It was the first fully automatic office copier to use ordinary paper, named for the 9X14-inch paper it made copies onto. Shades of the “Ox Box” can be found in the “scorch eliminator” that accompanied all models of the Xerox 914 copier—a small fire extinguisher (evadingly named for sales reasons), to deal with occasional overheating issues. In 1959, at a demonstration in New York City, one of the two Xerox 914 copiers caught on fire. This didn’t seem to deter buyers, however: within the first three years of production, Xerox had doubled their sales goal of 5000 copiers, selling 10,000. Xerography had a long-winded start, but the success of the Xerox 914 quickly cemented it as the root technology for all modern office photocopiers (and by extension, computer laser printers). The 914 remained in production from 1959 to 1976.

Finally, the Xerox 914, while laughably larger than today’s photocopiers (at a weight of 650 pounds), works the same way as a modern copier: place a document face down, press a button, and get a paper copy. Xerox had several tongue-in-cheek advertising campaigns for the 914, asking customers to spot the difference between a photocopy of a Picasso painting and the authentic artwork. But one campaign went too far: Xerox claimed that the 914 was so simple—even a chimp could be trained to use it. A 1960 commercial showing exactly this—a chimp making photocopies—caused the scales of respect towards secretaries to tip in the wrong direction. Female secretaries were furious to find their male co-workers had left bananas on the copiers, and made monkey noises while handing over their copy requests. The commercial caused an uproar. It was only aired once. But in the end, Xerox was forgiven. And the copies just kept on rolling.

Kristen Gallerneaux is the Curator of Communications and Information Technology at The Henry Ford. Research for this writing was inspired by recent treatment of The Henry Ford’s own Xerox 914 copier and other printing equipment shown above, completed thanks to an Institute of Museums and Library Sciences grant, #MA-30-13-0568-13

photocopiers, imls grant

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