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 capitalist 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.
Drawing on interviews, Xerox company archives, and the private papers of the Carlson family, David Owen has woven together a fascinating and instructive story about persistence, courage, and technological innovation -- a story that has never before been fully told.
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Copies in SecondsHow a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg-Chester Carlson and the Birth of Xerox
By David Owen
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2004 David Owen
All right reserved.
PrologueWe 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 - fortycenturies 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.
Excerpted from Copies in Seconds by David Owen Copyright © 2004 by David Owen. Excerpted by permission.
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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
11 Which Is the Original?
12 To Die a Poor Man