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
A lone inventor and the story of how one of the most revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century almost didn't happen.
Introduced in 1960, the first plain-paper office copier is unusual among major high-technology inventions in that its central process was conceived by a single person. Chester Carlson grew up in unspeakable poverty, worked his way through junior college and the California Institute of Technology, and made his discovery in solitude in the depths of the Great Depression. He offered his big idea to two dozen major corporations -- among them IBM, RCA, and General Electric -- all of which turned him down. So persistent was this failure of capitalistic vision that by the time the Xerox 914 was manufactured, by an obscure photographic-supply company in Rochester, New York, Carlson's original patent had expired.
Xerography was so unusual and nonintuitive that it conceivably could have been overlooked entirely. Scientists who visited the drafty warehouses where the first machines were built sometimes doubted that Carlson's invention was even theoretically feasible. Building the first plain-paper office copier -- with parts scrounged from junkyards, cleaning brushes made of hand-sewn rabbit fur, and a built-in fire extinguisher -- required the persistence, courage, and imagination of an extraordinary group of physicists, engineers, and corporate executives whose story has never before been fully told.
Copies in Seconds is a tale of corporate innovation and risk-taking at its very best.
As New Yorker staff writer Owen explains in this fast-paced account of one inventor's hopes and dreams, the technology of copying is a relatively modern phenomenon. He recounts the history of copying documents from the scribal work of monks to the invention of the printing press and lithography, to the process that eventually resulted in today's Xerox machine. Owen narrates the life story of the man behind the Xerox machine, Chester Carlson (1906-1968), and his lonely efforts to find a way to reproduce documents. An inventive soul from a young age, Carlson as a teenager sketched out concepts for a trick safety pin, a new type of lipstick and a disposable handkerchief made of soft paper. After he graduated from college, he went to work for Bell Laboratories and continued his inventive ways. When he finally landed on an electrostatic process that would act like both a printing press and a camera, he began to shop the concept around and the Xerox machine was born in the mid-'50s. Owen's sympathetic portrait of Carlson's life and the difficulties and rewards inherent in the inventive process provide a window into the birth of one of our most ubiquitous office machines.
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Simon & Schuster
August 02, 2004
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Excerpt from Copies in Seconds by David Owen
We ourselves are copies. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." A living organism, from its DNA up, is a copying machine. The essence of life -- the difference between us and sand -- is replication.
Copying is the engine of civilization: culture is behavior duplicated. The oldest copier invented by people is language, the device by which an idea of yours becomes an idea of mine. We are distinct from chimpanzees because speech, through its irrepressible power of reproduction, multiplied our thoughts into thinking.
The second great copying machine was writing. When the Sumerians transposed spoken words into stylus marks on clay tablets, they exponentially extended the human network that language had created. Writing freed copying from the chain of living contact. It made thinking permanent, portable, and endlessly reproducible.
Civilization has evolved at the speed of duplication. One mark in clay became two; two became four; four became eight. Like all doubling, copying accumulates slowly at first but compounds. Less than a millennium ago -- forty centuries after the Sumerians -- a single literate polyglot theoretically could have read every book in the world; today, copied language constitutes so much of the intangible infrastructure of existence that we consciously register only glimpses of the shadow of its shadow. A newsstand in Manhattan contains more duplicated text than did the legendary Library of Alexandria.
The earliest written documents were simple tallies: so many animals, so much grain. For centuries, that was all the writing in the world. Last week, a small plastic latch broke off my clothes dryer. I copied the number molded into its side and searched for it on Google. Less than a second later, my computer screen filled with a list of suppliers all over the country, with links to their inventories and their prices, along with half a dozen portals into a galaxy of intricately cross-referenced self-promotion. Behind the copied words on the screen lay invisible sentences of ones and zeros, and behind the ones and zeros lay a babel of electrical impulses and magnetic fields: the ultimate modern repository of replicable meaning. I chose a likely supplier, found the part I needed, and with a couple of clicks transmitted a copy of a stored description of myself that was more detailed than any a Sumerian could have produced of anyone he knew: my name, my exact location in the world, a partial history of my material desires, access to my treasure. Two days later, I installed the new part on my clothes dryer.
The world we live in -- as distinct from the world we live on -- is made of duplicated language. We build our lives from copies of copies of copies.