The photocopier turns 75
It’s one of the most iconic pieces of office equipment from the past century. It’s saved countless hours for workers, become a symbol for office shenanigans, and revolutionized the way we do business.
And it all started 75 years ago, today.
The Xerox copy machine stems from a breakthrough made by inventor Chester Carlson on October 22 1938.
On this day, in his small apartment in Queens, Carlson made the first ever dry copy. He used static electricity created with handkerchief, light, and dry powder to make the first copy in 1938.
The process, later coined xerography from the Greek roots meaning ‘dry writing’, was entirely novel.
But, it took Carlson nearly a decade to find a company that would commercialize his technology.
He pitched it to dozens of companies including Kodak and IBM. They all turned him down.
Eventually a struggling photographic paper company in Rochester, New York, named Haloid decided to take a gamble on the new technology.
Haloid later became Xerox, named after their signature product, and the company’s gamble paid off, says Xerox historical archivist Ray Brewer.
“It was an explosive effect on Xerox, we grew by leaps and bounds. At that time in the office it was revolutionary. Now everybody could have copies of information and the information could spread very quickly.”
Author and historian Lynn Peril says the beauty of the technology was that it saved time for the female office worker, without making her workplace role obsolete.
“The benefit to them was so clear, I mean oh my god, you didn’t have to work with all the lousy carbon paper, you could just take it and put it on this glass surface, and press a button and you’ve got as many copies as you wanted. I mean, that had to be fabulously liberating.”
“I think the copier is possibly one of the last major changes that was really wholly benign and wholly positive for female office workers.”
Unlike later technological advancements, such as word processing and desktop computers, the copier didn’t replace the main role of the secretary, which was taking dictation, Peril says.
The Xerox machine quickly became an office necessity.
The copier propelled Xerox to international prominence, but the first commercial machine didn’t appear until 1959, more than 20 years after Carlson’s first crude copy was made.
And that first commercial model, the Xerox 914, wasn’t without its kinks either. It was bulky and cumbersome, weighing nearly 650 pounds.
And it was prone to spontaneous combustion.
But even literally going up in flames wasn’t enough to kill the product, in fact, it was in high demand.
“It spoke volumes. There was a distinct need for simple copying like this and it just took off. We sold thousands of these machines and the demand was such that we were manufacturing them in large quantities,” says Brewer.
The Xerox machine prompted a dramatic change in the ability of a single person to communicate with large numbers of people.
Angele Boyd is a Business analyst at the International Data Corporation. She says copier technology created a more democratic information system.
“The laser printer brought to the desktop and the common man in the office the ability to produce output that, until then, you needed to go to a press or you needed to go to a third party external print shop to produce that kind of quality output.”
But, the Xerox technology wasn’t just about revolutionizing the business space, says archivist Ray Brewer.
It’s also got some James Bond flair in its past.
“We actually installed miniature cameras in some of the 914s back in the cold war era to spy on other countries. And that was pretty clever, they came up with the system using off-the-shelf devices to make that work.”
Copier technology has been streamlined, downsized and made more efficient over the decades, but the core technology has remained the same since the 1930s.
Angele Boyd says, even in our pursuit of the paperless world, Chester Carlson’s technology will continue to have a place in the office.
“The opportunities that he has spawned both on the print side, and on the capture side, will still live on for years to come in spite of all of the incredible technologies that have been introduced into the office.”
Whether it’s seen a symbol of office shenanigans immortalized in pop culture, or a tool that’s saved workers countless hours, the Xerox copier changed the nature of the office forever.