Happy Throwback Thursday, friends! On today’s date in 1938, just 82 years ago, an important invention was born. But before we get to that, let’s take a look at the inventor and when he was born. Chester Carlson was born on February 8, 1906 in Seattle, Washington.
Shortly after Chester’s birth, his father, Olaf Carlson, contracted tuberculosis. Olaf eventually recovered, but by the time Chester was 4, he moved the family to Mexico for 7 months, hoping to get rich in a land scheme. However, while they were there, Chester’s mother, Ellen contracted malaria, and the family returned to Washington.
Around this time, Olaf started developing arthritis of the spine, which was a common, age-related disease of the time. Because his parents were unable to work full-time due to their illnesses, Chester began taking odd jobs by the time he was 8, in order to help support the family.
By the age of 10, Chester devised a way to generate even more money for his family, by creating a newspaper called “This and That.” He created the newspaper by hand and circulated it among his friends. He showed such joy in creating his newspaper that his aunt gave him a toy typewriter that year for Christmas which he cherished, though he was disappointed that it wasn’t a real office typewriter. His other favorite item to play with during those days was a rubber stamp printing set.
By the time Chester was 13, he worked up to 3 hours a day before school, then went to school, then returned to work for another few hours before dinner. This necessity continued throughout his high school career.
During high school, while Chester maintained his adoration of printing and duplicating, he fell in love with chemistry. He found work with a local printer, and this was where he decided to create and publish a magazine for other like-minded science and chemistry students. He felt lucky when the printer was willing to sell him an old printing press for the cost of working extra hours. With little spare time, the life of his magazine ended after two issues. But Chester didn’t give up his love of science. In fact, he enjoyed reading about Thomas Edison and other successful inventors, and this gave him a dream of one day inventing something so grand that it would not only make a contribution to society, but it would vastly improve his own economic status. He started keeping an inventor’s notebook handy and would jot down ideas whenever he had them.
When Chester was 17, his mother Ellen died of tuberculosis. Because he had to work so many long hours, Chester had to take a postgraduate year at San Bernardino High School to make up missed courses before he was allowed to enter a work/study program at Riverside Junior College where he alternated working and attending classes every 6 weeks. He maintained 3 job at the time which paid for a small one-bedroom apartment for himself and his father.
Three years later, Chester transferred to Caltech, and he added mowing yards and other odd jobs on weekends and working at a cement factory in the summer to his resume. He graduated with a B.S. degree in Physics in 1930 at which time, he applied to more than 80 companies, but because of the Great Depression, none offered him a job.
Eventually, Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City offered him a position as a research engineer. Chester took the job but soon found the work boring, and a year later, he transferred to the patent department as an assistant to one of the company’s patent attorneys.
During his time at Bell Labs, he logged more than 400 ideas for new inventions. But his childhood love of printing kept nagging at him, especially since his position with the patent attorney inspired his determination to find a better way to copy documents.
Though the exact date is unknown, Chester’s father Olaf died either in 1932 or 33. Also in 1933, Chester lost his job and was unemployed for 6 weeks until he took a position at Austin & Dix near Wall Street. The following year, he took a better job at the electronics firm P. R. Mallory Company (which is currently known as Duracell), and he was soon promoted to head of the patent department. He got married in 1934, and because his job was unfulfilling, in 1936, he began to attend night school at New York Law School and received a law degree in 1939.
While he studied, he went to the New York Public Library and copied law books in longhand because he could not afford to buy them. This laborious task cemented his resolve to develop a true copying machine.
He studied on the matter and conducted early experiments in his apartment kitchen, however, these often ended up as smoky smelly, and exploding messes. After one particularly difficult to extinguish fire, he rented a room in Astoria, Queens for doing further experiments and He hired an out-of-work Austrian physicist named Otto Kornei as his assistant. Around this time, Chester developed arthritis of the spine, but he kept working.
After numerous experiments, on October 22, 1938, Chester and Kornei wrote “10.-22.-38 ASTORIA” in India ink on a glass microscope slide, then after preparing their process, they successfully made the world’s first xerographic copy!
Kornei was not as stoked about their invention as Chester was. A few months later, he left on cordial terms to find work elsewhere, and in so doing, dissolve their agreement that would have given Kornei ten percent of any future proceeds from and partial rights to their invention.
Chester attempted to get funding for his invention but between 1939 and 1944, more than twenty companies turned him down. Companies, including IBM, Kodak, The U.S. Navy, RCA, and others all passed, stating that they didn’t see the use of such a machine. It was nearly another decade before Chester found someone who was interested enough to take the idea and help him run with it.
By 1948, a professor at Ohio State University suggested the term xerography—formed by combining the Greek words xeros (“dry”) and graphein (“writing”) for the invention, and on October 22, 1948, one decade to the day after the first microscope slide was copied, the Haloid Company made the first public announcement of xerography.
The following year, it shipped out the first commercial photocopier: the XeroX Model A Copier, known inside the company as the “Ox Box.”
A few years later, after the kinks were worked out, Chester remembered his former assistant Kornei and sent him a gift of 100 shares in the Xerox company. Had Kornei held onto that gift, it would have been worth more than $1 million by 1972.
All told, Chester Carlson is indeed the father of modern copying technology. His tenacity paid off after years of trial and error and being turned down by many major corporations who have undoubtedly since kicked themselves a million times over. Can you imagine how they must have felt when their own companies ended up placing an order for an early Xerox machine? They must have felt no less disappointed than the people who first passed over Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon, to name but a few.
At any rate, Happy Birthday, Xerox!