Science history: Chester Carlson copies success


Jeff Glorfield goes back to the invention of the copy machine, which saved us from laborious retyping, carbon paper and stencils.


Carlson with the first model of the Xerox copier.

Bettmann/Contributer

Anyone who has ever worked in an office knows the anguished cry of the person stuck at the copy machine: it’s out of paper, or out of toner, or has paper jammed somewhere deep in its convoluted innards.

Many will also remember a time before copy machines. There was carbon paper in the typewriter, the spirit duplicator, the stencil duplicator or mimeograph machine. Most would agree, the office printer - with its ability to remotely print multiple copies and even transmit faxes and emails - is a great technological advance.

Today’s all-purpose office printer had its start with the 1959 release of the Xerox 914 copier, which transformed a modest maker of photographic paper into a multinational powerhouse.

As with so many of these transformative inventions, it started with one person who had an idea: Chester Floyd Carlson.

Carlson was born in Seattle, Washington, in the US Pacific north-west, on 8 February 1906. As a youngster, he’d been fascinated by graphic arts and chemistry and was intrigued by stories about the renowned inventor Thomas Edison, but by age 14 he was working at two jobs while going to school to support his invalid parents.

A biography about Carlson published by New York’s University of Rochester describes how in 1930 he earned a bachelor of science degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology and took a job offer as a research engineer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York.

Dissatisfied by the job, he moved on to the patent department of the electrical goods manufacturer PR Mallory & Co. He became a registered patent attorney despite having no formal qualification, although by 1939 he had earned a law degree.

While working in the patent office, Carlson noted that there never seemed to be enough carbon copies of patent specifications. “There were only two ways to get additional copies: have expensive photographic copies made or have a typist type more copies, which then had to be proof-read for errors, a laborious process,” the Rochester story says. He knew there had to be an easier way.

An article published by the Xerox Corporation, “The story of Xerography”, describes how Carlson knew research was well advanced, looking into photography and other processes using light to produce a chemical change to produce copies.

Carlson was inspired by the work of Hungarian physicist Pal Selenyi, who was experimenting with electrostatic images, by which when light strikes a photoconductive material, the electrical conductivity of that material is increased.


In the Xerox article, Carlson said: “‘Things don't come to mind readily, all of a sudden, like pulling things out of the air. You have to get your inspiration from somewhere, and usually you get it from reading something else’.”

His breakthrough came on 22 October 1938. Using sulfur coating on a zinc plate, Carlson’s assistant, Otto Kornei, took a glass microscope slide and printed on it in ink the figures 10-22-38.

He “rubbed the sulfur surface vigorously with a handkerchief to apply an electrostatic charge, laid the slide on the surface and placed the combination under a bright incandescent lamp for a few seconds.

“The slide was then removed and lycopodium powder was sprinkled on the sulfur surface. By gently blowing on the surface all the loose powder was removed and there was left on the surface a near-perfect duplicate in powder of the notation which had been printed on the glass slide.”

It took Carlson eight years to find anyone willing to invest in xerography. In 1944, Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit research organisation, signed a royalty-sharing contract with him and development began in earnest. In 1947, Battelle joined with a small photo-paper company called Haloid, later to be known as Xerox, giving Haloid the right to develop a xerographic machine.

The resulting Xerox copier made Carlson a wealthy man, but it’s estimated that during his life he gave away $100 million to various charities and foundations.

He reportedly died of a heart attack in the Festival Theatre in New York City, on 19 September 1968, while watching the film “He Who Rides a Tiger”.

Jeff Glorfeld is a former senior editor of The Age newspaper in Australia, and is now a freelance journalist based in California, US.
  1. https://www.library.rochester.edu/carlson/chester/biography
  2. https://www.xerox.com/downloads/usa/en/s/Storyofxerography.pdf
  3. https://www.biographies.net/people/en/pal_selenyi
  4. https://www.liquisearch.com/chester_carlson/later_life
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