A Brief History of the Photocopier

Posted on September 29, 2017

In a world where photocopiers, printers and scanners are present, and usually prolific, across all office environments, we struggle to imagine or remember what life was like before this technology was readily available.

It’s All Greek to Me

Charles Carlson lived in that time and saw a need for a quick and easy way to make copies. He created a process called electrophotography in 1937; the process was later renamed Xerography, which comes from the Greek words xeros, meaning dry and graphos, meaning writing.

A job with a local printer in his teenage years led Carlson to his interest in the duplicating process. From his work, he inherited a small printing press on the edge of its life. On it, he printed a magazine for amateur chemists.

It was a modest publication, and he only printed two issues, but the hobby made Carlson aware of the difficulties of getting information into multiple hard copies. He started a little inventor’s notebook, where he would record any ideas he had on the subject.

Trying economic times led the well-educated (he held degrees in chemistry and physics) Carlson to trouble in finding and keeping jobs. After being laid off from a research engineer position with Bell Telephone Laboratories, he worked for a short time as a patent attorney before moving to an electronics firm. He studied law at night and earned a law degree; he was later promoted to manager of the firm’s patent department.

As Carlson moved through his career, he continued to think about the duplication process, noticing that there always seemed to be a lack of carbon copies of patent information. There were limited options for obtaining more copies—sending out for expensive photocopies, or retyping the documents and manually checking for errors.

Copy That

Carlson began to research imaging processes, thinking that offices would greatly benefit and excel with an in-house device that could make copies quickly and inexpensively. He developed the fundamentals of his methods in his apartment’s kitchen and submitted his ideas for a patent.

To further invest in his research, Carlson rented a second-floor room over a bar and hired a lab assistant, Otto Kornei, who was a physicist and German refugee. Together, they worked to create experiments from Carlson’s ideas.

In 1938, Carlson and his lab assistant created the first photocopy. It read “10.-22.-38” signifying the date, with their location, “Astoria” underneath.

It would be 10 years before Carlson found a company that was willing to develop his idea of xerography. In 1944, a nonprofit research company agreed to begin developing the idea after signing a royalty-sharing contract. In 1947, The Haloid Company, which developed photo paper, entered the deal and began to develop the idea of a photocopier.

What’s In A Name? The Generic Trademark

The company changed its name to Haloid Xerox and created the first automated xerographic machine, the Copyflo. The first commercial push-button photocopier was introduced in 1958—it was called the 914.

The 914, named for its ability to copy anything up to the size 9 inches by 14 inches, saw great success and was in huge demand, despite there being some flaws. Haloid Xerox shortened its name to Xerox and was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

By the mid-1970s, Ricoh, Minolta, Panasonic, Toshiba, Sharp and Canon were producing competitive products to the Xerox machine. Xerox initially overall held consumers’ loyalties, but other copier manufacturers began to employ a local tactic—small local dealerships would sell their machines and service.

Manufacturers worked to break the interchangeable use of “Xerox” and “copy.” Xerox machines became photocopy machines or photocopiers; Xeroxing became copying. A new age of companies exists because the original photocopier made a recognizable difference to the everyday workflows of companies across the world.

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