Thanks, Dr. Pat, for your earlier article reminding me how much people like to read about engineering and invention.
It all seems so simple today. Put a document in machine, push a few buttons, and out come as many identical copies as you want. Or send a computer file to a laser or dot-matrix printer, and the machine spits out as many originals as you would like of a document that never before existed in tangible form.
That's xerography, a word meaning dry writing, coined by Chester Carlson for his invention of electro-photographic imaging. As David Owen writes in his engrossing new book, Copies in Seconds, Carlson began developing the idea in a makeshift laboratory in a rented former janitor's closet in Astoria, Queens. There on October 22, 1938, Carlson and his assistant, Otto Kornei, produced the first Xerox copy in a cumbersome step-by-step process that evokes a mental image of a Rube Goldberg cartoon.
Kornei, whose pay included a share of the invention's future profits, soon gave up to take another job. In what must rank as one of the worst business deals in history, he exchanged his rights to earnings from Carlson's invention for the unencumbered opportunity to develop one of his own.
Carlson understood that xerography faced tremendous obstacles before it could be commercialized. But he was also a visionary and staked out claims in his patents that included the technology's most significant commercial applications. He then set out to find an organization to share the risk and to manufacture electro-photographic equipment.
In 1944, he found an interested research group at the nonprofit Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio. Four years later, a relatively small manufacturing company, the Haloid Corporation in Rochester, New York, committed resources to build the first commercial xerographic imaging machine.