July 28, 2004

What's in a name.

Chester Carlson. I'm not sure how many of my readers can place the name, but had I seen it a few days ago, say on a multiple choice quiz, I'm not sure how I would have answered:

____ A. Swedish prime minister, 1946-1951
____ B. Actor in "Keystone Kops"
____ C. American inventor
____ D. Current mayor of Dayton, Ohio

Even if you told me the correct answer (it's C), that the invention was a technological application of a bit of theoretical physics that many physicists thought wouldn't work, that it fundamentally revolutionized the way we work -- I still would have been stumped, despite having a little personal family history with the device.

My grandfather was a physicist by training who worked in the private sector, and had a fair number of patents to his name. In addition, he made a nice living in his later years by selling high tech equipment to businesses. A canny investor, he also had a frugal streak, so when he had the chance to invest in a company that promised to market a product that cost somewhere between $15,000 and $29,500 (in 1959 dollars!) to replace a carbon sheet that cost a quarter of a cent and could be used in a typewriter multiple times, my grandfather passed. The new product was the Xerox 914 copying machine, invented by Chester Carlson.

There's a wonderful article by David Owen in the latest issue of the Smithsonian magazine about Carlson and his invention; Owen has also written a book about the subject. In the Smithsonian, Owen writes,

One of the most significant inventions of the 20th century was developed by an obscure photographic-supply company founded in 1906 as the Haloid Company. It is known today as the Xerox Corporation. In 1959, it introduced a machine that made sharp, permanent copies on ordinary paper—a huge breakthrough. The process, which Haloid called xerography (based on Greek words meaning "dry" and "writing"), was so unusual that physicists who visited the drafty warehouses where the first machines were built sometimes expressed doubt that it was even theoretically feasible.

Remarkably, xerography was conceived by one person—Chester Carlson, a shy, soft-spoken patent attorney, who grew up in almost unspeakable poverty and worked his way through college. He made his discovery in solitude in 1937 and offered it to more than 20 major corporations. All turned him down, thereby passing up the opportunity to manufacture what Fortune magazine would describe as "the most successful product ever marketed in America."

The article doesn't mention it, but the marketing of the machine was crucial to its success -- Haloid leased them for $100 a month, and charged a penny a copy, making the device practical for offices. The ability to copy a document, cleanly and in seconds, on plain paper, fundamentally changed the way offices work. And, as someone whose first significant publication was a xeroxed high school underground paper, I can attest to its liberating qualities. It's also interesting to note that modern laser printers rely on the same technology. and speaking of modern technology, I also liked this bit at the end of Owen's article, which demonstrates Carlson's peculiar genius:

And Carlson’s invention is still evolving. One of the most advanced machines today is the Xerox DocuColor iGen3, introduced in 2001. It is a digital printing system rather than a copier but operates xerographically. It produces 6,000 fullcolor, 8-1/2- by 11-inch offset-quality impressions per hour, and those impressions can be customized on the fly. Its four “imaging stations” lay down cyan, magenta, yellow and black toners on an electrostatically charged photoconductive belt, from which the powders are transferred, all at once, onto paper. The underlying imaging technology, by which a monochromatic process makes full-color prints, is hard to explain, but essentially it involves separating a polychromatic image into the three complementary colors (plus black) in order to “enable one color to be recorded, and then developing with colored powder to produce a copy of that color, then repeating for each other color and superimposing the dust images on the same copy sheet.”

That, at any rate, is how Chester Carlson described it in his second xerography patent, which he filed on April 4, 1939.

What's fairly amazing to me is that, while Xerox for a time had become, like Kleenex, a generic noun (and, in the former case, a verb)(this seems to have given way now -- I haven't heard anyone in my office say, "I have to xerox the meeting agenda" or whatnot -- it's now "copy the agenda"), the name of Chester Carlson remains obscure. The Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges noted in an essay on Herman Melville, who at the time of his death was an all but forgotten minor novelist, that "Vast populations, towering cities, erroneous and clamorous publicity have conspired to make unknown great men one of America's traditions." That truth is not limited to our artists.

Posted by Ideofact at July 28, 2004 12:24 AM