Deja Vu: A Look Back at the Photo Copier

Posted Mar 15, 2004 by David Silverberg
No company has morphed more into a verb than Xerox. Blame brand loyalty or the company’s ubiquitous service, the underlying notion remains — we love our photocopying.
So what if we sometimes want to take a shotgun to it (like an Illinois country sheriff once did when the darn thing ran out of toner)? The relationship is love/hate, as photocopying is one of the most valuable inventions we paper fiends couldn’t live without.
The first photocopy celebrates its 66th birthday this year, and the days of ye olde clunker are a fuzzy memory. Those behemoths may still be skulking in some convenience stores and pharmacies, but today’s savvy office workers invest in multi-function centres (MFCs) or digital copiers.
Before his most famous discovery emerged, Chester Carlson worked as a patent clerk in the 1930s. Plagued by unending requests for copies of patents and drawings, Carlson applied his physics training to invent a new type of copying process. He focused on the interaction between light and electrostatic fields, blending sulphur, mould powder and a bright light. The world’s first photocopy was made in Queens, New York, in October 1938 and Carlson brought his patent to a small technology firm called The Haloid Company.
In 1949, they produced the first commercial photocopier, but it required 14 steps to make one copy. After Haloid changed its name to Xerox Corp. (adding the final “X” to sound more like Kodak), they released a fully automated photocopier, Model 914, which earned the company and Carlson millions of dollars.
Photocopiers are de rigueur for any office today, the most advanced models slicing into light-energy pixels to allow 255 colour gradations. And the small office/home business MFCs offer a tossed salad of hardware: printer, copier and scanner in one unit.
For all the widespread usage, one warning remains — photocopy with care. To better equip yourself against dangerous machines, strap on some shades: staring at the bright copier light can cause eye damage. And put on some UV sunblock: a New York dermatologist has seen copier light spark skin rashes. Oh, and remember that gas mask: some copiers emit ozone gases that irritate the sinuses, according to the British Allergy Foundation.
These office nightmares won’t deter the millions who photocopy every day, who thrive on an invention discovered by a tired patent clerk. If Carlson had dismissed his idea as a passing fancy, Xerox would be just another noun — if it would exist at all.
Did you Know?
  • The first commercial photocopier required 14 steps to make one copy
  • Chester Carlson, the father of the photocopier, patented the landmark reproduction technique that landed him millions of dollars
  • The first photocopy debuted in 1938 at Carlson’s lab in Astoria, Queens
  • Tech firm Haloid changed its name to Haloid Xerox to sound more like “Kodak”