Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg–Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine by David Owen
(Simon & Schuster, 320 pages, $24)
“The Beast” is the well-earned nickname for the color laser printer where I work. Its varied conniptions — paperless paper jams, occasional cycle errors, slow manual feed — confuse even the most technologically savvy.
Thanks to The Beast, I could read David Owen’s Copies in Seconds with a knowing smile. The book reveals that Chester Carlson’s invention has a rich history of annoying — and even dangerous — problems.
For example, the Xerox Model A, known as the “Ox Box,” required about 48 maneuvers to complete a single copy — including fusing the document in a toaster-like oven to bond the toner with the paper. A 50-page document would have necessitated 2,400 moves. When Xerox later paraded its 914 copier at a 1960 trade show in Washington, one of the machines caught fire. An alert staff, knowing what it was up against, had spares ready.
Xerox copiers had their beginning in 1938 in a makeshift lab in Queens, N.Y. There, Chester Carlson, who invented xerography, and his assistant, Otto Kornei, produced the first copy of a document, which read “10-22-38 ASTORIA.” Carlson spent the next few years unsuccessfully trying to persuade several companies, most notably IBM, to develop his invention.
Eventually, a “hands-on industrial consulting agency” named Battelle agreed to develop Carlson’s idea further, in exchange for 60 percent of the profits. Battelle resolved a few technical issues, and the door was open to build and market an office copier.
Well, sort of. A company named Haloid, a Rochester, N.Y.-based predecessor to Xerox that made photographic paper, bought a license from Battelle in 1946 to make a xerographically based machine “intended to produce fewer than twenty copies of an original.” The company didn’t produce a commercially successful office copier until 1960, when the 914 was introduced.
In the meantime, Haloid did produce a few test models. But during the winter, many of those machines worked either sporadically or not at all because of low humidity. Salesmen calmly assured customers that the company would have the problem solved soon. Of course, they had no idea whether that was true at all.
The staff at Haloid had to address myriad other daunting problems with the 914’s predecessors. One was the size of the machines: the Copyflo, introduced in 1954, was “roughly the size of a mail truck, required 220-volt current and a reinforced floor, made its copies only from microfilm and only onto continuous rolls of paper, and had a retail price (in some later models) of $130,000.” Even the successful 914 required almost weekly service calls. But, as Owen points out, “Xerography was so new and unknown that no one yet had a basis for expecting it to work better than it did.”
So how did the company make money with malfunctioning machines? One income source was product maintenance: like copiers today, parts wore out and replacements had to be made. The company also leased machines to customers, which allowed it to depreciate the copiers.
In addition to technical problems with its products, Haloid faced competition in the office copier market. In 1953 RCA introduced “a small, moderately priced office machine that made copies xerographically,” and executives at Haloid were quite worried that all their research and development would go for naught. But RCA’s model had one problem: it required a special coated paper, whereas Haloid’s model copied onto plain office paper. (Still, Carlson respected RCA’s development, calling it “the second best way to do copying.”)
In another discouraging development, two years before the successful 914 copier appeared, the consulting firm Arthur D. Little pronounced doom on the project. In a report produced for IBM, Little “concluded that total demand, now and in the future, could be satisfied by a maximum of a few thousand machines — not enough to make production worthwhile.” Three years later, however, Haloid (now called Haloid Xerox) was vindicated: between 1959 and 1961, its revenue doubled because of copier sales.
And that, briefly, is David Owen’s portrait of how an obscure technology from an obscure inventor produced by a once-obscure company brought about the office copier. Although his book might be too technical for some, Owen presents a clear and understanding view of Carlson and his invention. Much as I hate to admit it, I’m now rather fond of The Beast.