Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine

Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine

by David Owen


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A lone inventor and the story of how one of the most revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century almost didn't happen.
Introduced in 1960, the first plain-paper office copier is unusual among major high-technology inventions in that its central process was conceived by a single person. Chester Carlson grew up in unspeakable poverty, worked his way through junior college and the California Institute of Technology, and made his discovery in solitude in the depths of the Great Depression. He offered his big idea to two dozen major corporations — among them IBM, RCA, and General Electric — all of which turned him down. So persistent was this failure of capitalistic vision that by the time the Xerox 914 was manufactured, by an obscure photographic-supply company in Rochester, New York, Carlson's original patent had expired.
Xerography was so unusual and nonintuitive that it conceivably could have been overlooked entirely. Scientists who visited the drafty warehouses where the first machines were built sometimes doubted that Carlson's invention was even theoretically feasible. Building the first plain-paper office copier — with parts scrounged from junkyards, cleaning brushes made of hand-sewn rabbit fur, and a built-in fire extinguisher — required the persistence, courage, and imagination of an extraordinary group of physicists, engineers, and corporate executives whose story has never before been fully told.
Copies in Seconds is a tale of corporate innovation and risk-taking at its very best.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780743251181
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 05/09/2005
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 8.32(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.83(d)

About the Author

David Owen plays in a weekly foursome, takes mulligans off the first tee, practices intermittently at best, wore a copper wristband because Steve Ballesteros said so, and struggles for consistency even though his swing is consistent — just mediocre. He is a staff writer for The New Yorker, a contributing editor to Golf Digest, and a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly. His other books include The First National Bank of Dad, The Chosen One, The Making of the Masters, and My Usual Game. He lives in Washington, Connecticut.

Read an Excerpt


We ourselves are copies. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." A living organism, from its DNA up, is a copying machine. The essence of life — the difference between us and sand — is replication.

Copying is the engine of civilization: culture is behavior duplicated. The oldest copier invented by people is language, the device by which an idea of yours becomes an idea of mine. We are distinct from chimpanzees because speech, through its irrepressible power of reproduction, multiplied our thoughts into thinking.

The second great copying machine was writing. When the Sumerians transposed spoken words into stylus marks on clay tablets, they exponentially extended the human network that language had created. Writing freed copying from the chain of living contact. It made thinking permanent, portable, and endlessly reproducible.

Civilization has evolved at the speed of duplication. One mark in clay became two; two became four; four became eight. Like all doubling, copying accumulates slowly at first but compounds. Less than a millennium ago — forty centuries after the Sumerians — a single literate polyglot theoretically could have read every book in the world; today, copied language constitutes so much of the intangible infrastructure of existence that we consciously register only glimpses of the shadow of its shadow. A newsstand in Manhattan contains more duplicated text than did the legendary Library of Alexandria.

The earliest written documents were simple tallies: so many animals, so much grain. For centuries, that was all the writing in the world. Last week, a small plastic latch broke off my clothes dryer. I copied the number molded into its side and searched for it on Google. Less than a second later, my computer screen filled with a list of suppliers all over the country, with links to their inventories and their prices, along with half a dozen portals into a galaxy of intricately cross-referenced self-promotion. Behind the copied words on the screen lay invisible sentences of ones and zeros, and behind the ones and zeros lay a babel of electrical impulses and magnetic fields: the ultimate modern repository of replicable meaning. I chose a likely supplier, found the part I needed, and with a couple of clicks transmitted a copy of a stored description of myself that was more detailed than any a Sumerian could have produced of anyone he knew: my name, my exact location in the world, a partial history of my material desires, access to my treasure. Two days later, I installed the new part on my clothes dryer.

The world we live in — as distinct from the world we live on — is made of duplicated language. We build our lives from copies of copies of copies.

Copyright © 2004 by David Owen

Table of Contents



1 Copies in Seconds

2 Beyond the Reach of Accident

3 How Do You Know What Color It Is on the Other Side?

4 10-22-38 ASTORIA

5 Fathers and Sons

6 The Ox Box

7 The House on Hollenbeck Street

8 American Xerography Corp.

9 The 914

10 Nickels

11 Which Is the Original?

12 To Die a Poor Man



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