“Xerography was an invention we didn’t know we needed until, suddenly, we didn’t know how we lived without it.”Carlson biographer David Owen
Chester Carlson had a childhood nobody would want to copy. His father was perennially ill and poor. Mom, dad, and young Chester lived in a leaky hut in Mexico until forced to flee due to the Mexican Revolution. By eight years old, young Carlson was the family’s sole breadwinner. His mom died when he was a teen and he lived with his father in a chicken shack.
Like countless poor people today, he started college at Riverside Junior College. Eventually, thanks to good grades and hard work, he transferred to and graduated from the California Institute of Technology, Caltech.
He graduated in 1930, one of the worst years of the Great Depression. Burdened by $1,500 of student loan debt, a staggering amount at the time, about 80 companies turned him down for work. Eventually, he found a job at Bell Labs in New York City, first as a research assistant then as an assistant in the patent office.
By 1936, Carlson began a night program at New York Law School to further his career in the patent office. But he was still poor and could not afford books. Frustrated, he copied the law books longhand thinking that between the amount of copying he did at work, and now at school, there must be a better way to copy paper.
Carbon paper in use at the time could only make, at most, ten copies at once. Photographs were too expensive, requiring film, paper, and special chemicals. Carlson envisioned a plain-paper copying system.
After kitchen experiments failed, he realized the need to use static electricity to attract a black powder, a toner, to paper. His first successful experiment was to print the date, “10.-22.-38 ASTORIA.” His hired lab assistant was underwhelmed enough that he quit. Carlson continued and, as a patent lawyer, protected his work; the first patent for “electrophotography” was issued October 6, 1942.
In 1944, Carlson contracted to work with the non-profit Battelle Memorial Institute to refine the process. They tried to license the technology. Countless companies passed until the tiny Haloid Corporation, which made photo paper, decided to invest in Carlson’s machines. Soon after, they renamed the company Xerox.
The first Xerox, Model A, was released in 1949.
Work on a large-volume plain-paper single-step machine continued. Feedback for a dozen prototypes was awful. Due to the static electricity used for the toner, they shocked people. They broke down, jammed, and caught fire often enough engineers insisted the machines come with a fire extinguisher attached. But when Haloid went to retrieve the prototypes nobody wanted to give theirs back.
The iconic Xerox Model 914 was released in 1959. Carlson became famously wealthy and eventually donated most of his money to charity.