Every school child is aware of Gutenberg and his printing press. But few know the name Chester Carlson, even though his impact on our lives as generators of information and creators of documents was just as great as the impact Gutenberg had on society some 500 years ago.
Chester Carlson invented the process of xerography (literally, “dry writing”) in Astoria, New York in 1938 after several years of experimentation and a lifelong interest in duplication. He had been trying to create a means of duplicating a sheet of paper, such as a letter, but the only means of making copies at the time ranged from carbon paper, mimeographs, and photostats, none of which could take an existing document and copy it onto a new piece of paper without some intermediate steps or processes.
Carlson was successful by following a process outlined by the Hungarian physicist Pál Selényi that resulted in the world’s first xerographic copy. It involved no chemical reaction and was a completely dry process. John Dessauer, chief of research at the Haloid Corporation, read about Carlson’s invention and Carlson (along with his agent, Batelle Memorial Institute, a technology company that was headquartered in Columbus, Ohio), entered into a licensing agreement with Haloid.
Carlson joined Haloid in 1947 and the XeroX Copier Model A was born. The technology, however, was difficult to use and other companies such as 3M and Kodak were already offering easy-to-use copying machines, although these machines used an inferior process and did not copy onto plain paper. This put intense pressure on Haloid to perfect their machine.
The real breakthrough came with the Xerox 914, the world’s first modern photocopier.
Just as Gutenberg’s printing press revolutionized man’s ability to spread information in geometric proportion, Carlson’s Xerox machine had a similar effect, largely, at least at first, on knowledge workers in offices.
Office life got a lot easier, in many respects, thanks to Carlson, but one could also look at the photocopy as a forerunner of the kind of Information Overload we now get from e-mail and other electronic messaging technologies. A 1961 ad for the Xerox 914 put it succinctly, it “makes copies of anything… on ordinary paper… even pages in a book.”
Until the era of the laser printer arrived in the 1990s, creators of documents had two choices. There were those few documents important enough to warrant the investment of time and energy in setting type and printing and the overwhelming majority of documents that didn’t, many of them of an ephemeral nature. Carlson’s photocopier closed the gap between commercial printing and low-volume copying (which had been more likely to have been handled via carbon copies than anything else). It also gave knowledge workers the ability to distribute anything and everything to as many people as they wished, just like e-mail does today, albeit with less speed and efficiency.
The photocopier opened the door for knowledge workers to send documents to multiple recipients but there were still some significant limitations compared to what is available today using e-mail. The distribution of documents within a building or campus was relatively easy and done via intra-office mail or simply by dropping off the document in the recipient’s inbox. For those people traveling or in a different office or company, documents were typically sent by mail and this meant that they would not arrive until several days later.
Fortunately, the world was not working at twenty-first century Internet speed at the time and the focus on immediacy and the requirement for instant gratification hadn’t yet manifested themselves in the office environment.
Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.