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The History of the Photocopier:

In 1937, an American law student, Chester Carlson, invented a copying process called xerography. The term ‘xerography’ came from the Greek, literally ‘dry writing’, meaning writing without conventional ink. Chester Carlson’s novel copying process based on the role of electrostatic energy went on to be developed by the Xerox Corporation and in 1950 the first commercial Xerox machine went on sale.

Chester Carlson:

Chester Carlson was born on 8 February 1906 in Seattle. His father was a barber who early in Chester’s life moved the family to San Bernardino, California. Unfortunately, Chester’s father went on to develop crippling arthritis and later both his father and mother contracted tuberculosis. By the time Chester was fourteen years old, he was the main breadwinner for the Carlson household. Despite all these hardships, Chester managed to enrol himself in a junior college at Riverside, California. He then went on to earn his Bachelor Degree in Science from the California Institute of Technology in 1930. This left Carlson in $1400 of debt during the recession, certainly not the best of predicaments to be in. And finding a job to pay off this debt was not easy. Chester sent out letters to 82 different companies, only receiving two replies and no job offers. He eventually found work as a research engineer at Bell Laboratories in New York City for just $35 dollars a week. But this didn’t last long. As the depression worsened, unfortunately Bell had to lay off Chester. Realising that he was unlikely to be able to find the job he wanted, Carlson settled for a job at the electronics firm, PR Mallory, which was famous for its batteries. He was eventually promoted to manager of Mallory’s patent department. At night he attended law school to become a patent lawyer.

The ‘Eureka’ Moment:

It was his job at Mallory that would lead Carlson to the invention that would change the world. He found that there were never enough copies of patents around. There were only two choices to get more copies at the time. Either send the patents out to be photographed or laboriously write out new ones. Both methods were very expensive and time consuming. To make matters worse, Carlson was nearsighted and started to suffer, like his father, from crippling arthritis. Carlson knew there had to be a better way to make copies. His first step was to head straight to the library, the New York Public Library to be specific. He spent many months pouring through tonnes of scientific articles. Articles related to the field of photography were immediately ruled out. This was crammed with researchers who’d explored practically every avenue in this regard. Besides, at this time, photography was wet and messy.   Carlson turned his attention to the field of photoconductivity. This was a relatively new area of research pioneered by the Hungarian physicist, Paul Selenyi. It had been observed that when light hit the surface of certain materials, the material’s conductivity increased. Carlson, being a physicist had that flash of inspiration that all inventors talk of so much. He realised that if an image or photograph of a document were projected onto a photoconductive surface, current would only flow in the areas that the light hit upon. The print areas would be dark and not allow any current to flow.

Developing the Idea:

Carlson set up a lab in his kitchen. And it was in the kitchen of his Jackson Heights, Queens apartment that the basic principle of what was called ‘electro-photography’ were established. His first patent was applied for in October 1937. Unfortunately, Carlson’s wife, by this point had become sick of experiments in the kitchen, and demanded he go elsewhere. The laboratory was moved to a room at the back of a beauty salon, owned by his mother-in-law. Chester hired in some help, in the form of Otto Kornei, an unemployed German physicist. One day, Otto took a plate and covered it with a batch of freshly prepared sulphur. He then wrote ‘10-22-38 Astoria’ on a microscope slide in India ink. The room was darkened and the sulphur was rubbed with a hankerchief to give it charge. The slide was then placed on top of the sulphur and placed under a bright light for a few seconds. The slide was then removed and the sulphur surface was covered with lycopodium powder. With one breath the lycopodium powder was then blown from the sulphur surface. And there it was, an almost perfect mirror image, ’10-22-38 Astoria’. The real trick was in preserving the image. Carlson took wax paper and heated it over the remaining powder. The wax cooled around the spores and was then peeled away and the first photocopy had been made.

Finding Investment:

Needless to say, this product wasn’t quite ready to go to market. Much work was still yet to be done. But research needs money and Carlson didn’t have any. Kornei, for his part, couldn’t see where all this was leading and quit. He found work at IBM and was later rewarded for his efforts for Carlson with stock. With such a great product, you would have assumed companies would be queuing up to develop it. But between 1939 and 1944 Carlson and his idea were turned down by around twenty large corporations. During this time, Carlson continued to work at PR Mallory, which occasionally took him to the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit organisation which invested in research. During one visit in 1944, Carlson mentioned that he had several patents on a new reproduction process. As a result of this encounter, Battelle officials expressed interest and signed a royalty sharing deal with Carlson, giving Carlson a 40% share in the proceeds. Battelle was well aware of the amount of research that needed to be done but went to work to solve the many problems.

Refining the Process:

The project was assigned to a man named Roland M Schaffert, a research physicist and a former printer. Schaffert worked on the project all by himself for nearly a year. When the war ended, Battelle provided Schaffert with a small group of assistants to improve on the process. The first step that the Battelle staff took was to develop a new photoconductive plate. The new plate was covered with selenium which was a much better photo-conductor. Next, they spent nearly a year developing the corona wire to serve a dual role: to apply the electrostatic charge to the plate and to transfer the powder from the plate to the paper. One of the most important developments was the invention of a better dry ink. Carlson’s use of lycopodium powder and other materials had produced a somewhat blurry image. Battelle researchers substituted a fine iron powder for dry ink and mixed in an ammonium chloride salt and a plastic material. The ammonium chloride was included to clean up the image. It had the same charge as the metal plate, so in the areas where there is low charge or no image, the iron particles stuck to the salt and not to the plate. The plastic material was designed to melt when heated and fuse the iron particles to the paper. They called this material toner, since one could very simply use different tones of developer to produce any colour desired. (Three superimposed colours could be used to produce full colour copies.)

The Final Stages:

On 2 January 1947, Battelle signed a licensing agreement with a small Rochester company known as Haloid. Haloid manufactured photographic products and were looking for new products to develop. Haloid’s investment in electro-photography was a big gamble, as the company had only earned $101,000 on sales of $6,750,000 in 1946. The research would cost Haloid a minimum investment of $25,000 a year. Battelle demonstrated electro-photography to the world on 22 October 1948, ten years to the day after Carlson’s first successful experiment. The first photocopiers were introduced in 1949 but the whole process was inefficient and impractical when making a dozen or more copies. It took fourteen steps by the user and some forty five seconds to make a single copy. These flat-plate machines were rejected for being somewhat too complicated. It was back to the drawing board. But in the meantime, Haloid came up with a new name for the process. At the suggestion of an Ohio professor, they changed the name to Xerography, based on the Greek ‘dry writing’. Haloid named its first photocopier the Xerox model A, the X being added to make the product sound similar to Kodak, another Rochester corporation. In 1958 Haloid officially changed the name to Haloid Xerox and finally to just Xerox in 1961.

The Finished Article:

Success didn’t really come to Haloid until 1959, when they introduced the Model 914, the first fully automated photocopier machine. It was called the 914 because it could handle up to 9*14 in size. The machine was so popular that by the end of 1961, Xerox had nearly $60,000,000 in revenue. By 1965 revenues leaped to over $500,000,000. Chester Carlson, finally enjoying the profits from his years of hard work, collapsed and died on 19 September 1968, while walking down 57th Street in New York City. He had been attending a conference and was on his way to see a movie during some spare time. Of the estimated $150,000,000 he had earned from Xerox, he had generously given about $100,000,000 to charity.