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Carlson, Chester F.

Carlson, Chester F.

Xerox Photocopier


Chester F. Carlson's invention of the copying process now known as xerography transformed the way business is done in this country and around the world. As a young man, Carlson worked as a patent analyzer for a manufacturer of electrical components. As part of his job, Carlson was responsible for preparing the documentation that had to be submitted to the patent office. This involved producing multiple copies of the invention's specifications and drawings, all of which had to be duplicated by hand, a long and tedious process. Carlson was convinced there had to be a better way and, over time, developed the basic process that we all use today to quickly and accurately reproduce important documents. In 1937, Carlson first was granted a patent to protect his idea for electrophotography. Just over a year later, with the assistance of physicist Otto Kornei, Carlson successfully produced copies using the principles of electrophotography. It was another 10 years before the process was sufficiently refined to attract the interest of a major company, namely Haloid Company. Finally, in 1950 the first commercial xerographic equipment was marketed by Haloid, which later changed its name to Xerox.

Personal Life

He was born Chester Floyd Carlson in Seattle, Washington, on February 8, 1906, son of Olaf and Ellen Carlson. His forebears on both sides had come to the United States from Sweden about a century earlier, drawn to this country by the promise of freedom of religion. Settling first in Minnesota, they had gradually moved west.

Carlson's childhood was not an easy one. About a year after his birth, Carlson's father, an itinerant barber, was stricken with a severe case of tuberculosis. 'As if that were not enough," Carlson later recalled, "he also developed arthritis of the spine, the two together rapidly reducing him to a bent, emaciated wreck of a man who was to spend the greater part of each day for the next 26 years lying flat on his back, wracked by coughing spells and defeated by the world. This, plus the resulting poverty and isolation, was to have a profound effect on my development."

The Carlson family left Seattle shortly after Carlson's birth and for a few years endured a fairly nomadic existence, residing briefly in a number of cities in California, Arizona, and Mexico before finally settling down in San Bernadino, California. It was in San Bernadino that Carlson attended grammar school and high school. By the time he was 14, he had become the primary support of his family, working before and after school and on the weekends as well. Two of his after–school jobs—working as a janitor in a newspaper office and setting type for a small printing business—left him with a lifelong interest in "the difficult problem of getting words onto paper or into print." His mother, always frail, died of tuberculosis when he was only 17. After graduating from high school in 1924, he worked for a year and then joined a cooperative education program at Riverside Junior College for three years. Under the program, Carlson attended class half of the time and worked outside the classroom the other half of the time. Later, Carlson transferred to the California Institute of Technology, where he earned his B.S. degree in physics in 1930.

Fresh out of college, Carlson landed a job in New York with Bell Telephone Laboratories. He found his position as research engineer to be boring and not at all stimulating, so he asked to be transferred to the company's patent department, hoping that the flow of information about new products and processes would be more interesting. Carlson was made assistant to a patent attorney in the Bell Lab's patent department, a position he held until 1933 when he was laid off.

It was the depths of the Great Depression, and Carlson found himself on the streets with countless other men and women who'd lost their jobs. Looking back on that experience, he later told biographer Alfred Dinsdale: "So then I walked the streets for a while . . . and finally landed a job in a patent attorney's office down near Wall Street, working on patent applications. I served my apprenticeship, ended up my clerkship there, thus enabling me to be registered as a patent attorney. I still didn't have any law training." In the early 1930s, it was not necessary to have any formal law training to be registered as a patent attorney.

In 1934, Carlson landed a higher–paying job as a patent attorney in the patent department of P.R. Mallory Company, an electrical equipment manufacturer based in New York City. In 1936 he began attending night classes at New York Law School to earn his law degree (which he received in 1939), but during the day he labored in Mallory's patent department. His responsibilities at Mallory involved the evaluation of new products and processes developed by company researchers and engineers and the preparation of the documentation necessary to apply for patents on these products and process. Applications to the U.S. Patent Office required the preparation of multiple copies of certain specifications and product drawings, work that for the most part had to be done either by hand or by the typing pool using messy carbon paper. Carlson was convinced there had to be a better way.

Career Details

Carlson's frustration with the lack of any quick and easy way in which to reproduce documents sent him on a voyage of discovery that began to occupy most of his time away from work. In the late 1930s, documents could be duplicated by mimeograph or by offset printing, but these processes required a specially prepared stencil or mat and were impractical unless hundreds of copies were needed. Carlson pored over scientific books and journals in the reading room of the New York Public Library, searching for the key to an alternative technology.

During his research, Carlson became interested in photoconductors, materials whose conductivity is altered when exposed to light. With the scientific knowledge he'd picked up in his reading, Carlson began experimenting with various processes and chemicals in his apartment. He drew the protests of neighbors when he experimented with sulfur, which created unpleasant odors and occasionally burst into flame when it was melted.

Much to his neighbors' relief, Carlson finally decided to set up a small laboratory away from his home. He rented a room above a bar in Astoria, Queens. To assist him in his experiments, Carlson hired German physicist Otto Kornei, who had recently arrived in the United States as a refugee from Germany. A breakthrough finally came on October 22, 1938. Carlson later recounted to biographer Dinsdale what happened on that fateful day: "I went to the lab . . . and Otto had a freshly prepared sulphur coating on a zinc plate. We tried to see what we could do toward making a visible image. Otto took a glass microscope slide and printed on it in India ink the notation '10–22–38 ASTORIA.' We pulled down the shade to make the room as dark as possible, then he rubbed the sulphur surface vigorously with a handkerchief to apply an electrostatic charge, laid the slide on the surface and placed the combination under a bright incandescent lamp for a few seconds.

"The slide was then removed and lycopodium powder was sprinkled on the sulphur surface. By gently blowing on the surface, all the loose power was removed and there was left on the surface a near–perfect duplicate in powder of the notation which had been printed on the glass slide. Both of us repeated the experiment several times to convince ourselves that it was true, then we made some permanent copies by transferring the powder images to wax paper and heating the sheets to melt the wax. Then we went out to lunch and to celebrate."

Carlson lacked the financing to commercialize the process, but he quickly applied for patents on his electrostatic copying process. His experience as a patent attorney enabled him to draw up patents that were tight and comprehensive and still considered classics to this day. However, he had a hard time finding any company interested in backing his invention. Among the big corporations he courted were Eastman Kodak, IBM, RCA, and Remington Rand. His presentations of the new technology were met "with an enthusiastic lack of interest," he later recalled. The process was still relatively unsophisticated and the images it produced were fuzzy and imprecise.

Chronology: Chester F. Carlson

1906: Born.

1930: Graduated from California Institute of Technology with B.S. in physics.

1933: Laid off from job in Bell Lab's patent department.

1934: Converted kitchen of his New York City apartment into a laboratory.

1937: Filed preliminary patent application for concept of electrophotography (xerography).

1938: Made first electrophotographic copy.

1939: Graduated from New York Law School with LLB degree.

1940: First basic patent for process issued.

1944: Signed agreement with Battelle Development Corp. to sponsor the new invention.

1948: Battelle and Haloid (later Xerox) publicly announce copying process.

1968: Died.

In 1944, the patent department of P.R. Mallory was visited by a representative of Battelle Memorial Institute, an industrial research organization based in Columbus, Ohio. Intrigued by Carlson's invention, Battelle offered to spend $3,000 of its money to further refine Carlson's technology in return for 60 percent of any royalties that might be earned in the future. Carlson accepted Battelle's offer. One of Battelle's first suggestions involved changing the name of the process that Carlson had discovered. Carlson's "electrophotography" didn't appeal to Battelle officials, who suggested he change the name to "xerography," a combination of the Greek words for "dry" and "writing." More importantly, Battelle's research revealed that amorphous selenium was a far more effective photoconductor than either the sulfur or anthracene that Carlson and Kornei had used in their experiments.

Haloid Company, based in Rochester, New York, in 1946 expressed an interest in Carlson's copying process and agreed to sponsor research work at Battelle, beginning in January 1947. A little more than 18 months later, Haloid and Battelle jointly announced the development of the xerography process. The first xerographic copier manufactured by Haloid hit the market in 1950. Nicknamed the "Ox Box" by insiders at Haloid, the copier was cumbersome, difficult to operate, and slow, taking two to three minutes to produce a single copy. The public was unimpressed, and few of these early copiers were sold. However, Haloid continued to refine and improve its copiers, spending nearly $90 million in the process. By 1959, the company, which had since changed its name to Haloid–Xerox, finally had a product it felt confident would attract more interest than its earlier copiers. The public found the company's latest copier too expensive and too big. Demand never exceeded 5,000 machines.

Haloid–Xerox finally hit on the right combination in 1960, when it rolled out its Model 914. Although it was still big and expensive, the 914 quickly produced excellent copies on ordinary paper. Demand soared, and by 1962, more than 19,000 of the copiers were in use.

Carlson, who had retired from Mallory in 1945 and moved to Rochester, New York in 1948, sold full title to his xerography patents to Haloid in 1955 for 50,000 shares of stock plus royalties. Now a multimillionaire, he devoted much of his energies in later years to philanthropic endeavors, donating more than $150 million to worthy causes. He died on September 19, 1968, after suffering a heart attack in a New York City movie theater. He was survived by his wife, Doris, and a daughter, Catherine.

Social and Economic Impact

Against great odds, Chester F. Carlson came up with the idea for a process that transformed the way business is done in this country and around the world. His childhood was one of great difficulty, and in his early teens he found himself the sole support of his family. Despite these obstacles, Carlson managed to get the education he needed to make something of his life. Even more remarkably, he took a problem he found in the working world and dedicated his life to finding a practical solution.

As a young man, Carlson began working behind the scenes in the preparation of patent applications, an experience he found frustrating because of the difficulty in duplicating documentation required by the U.S. Patent Office. Convinced that there had to be a practical alternative to hand–copying the diagrams and schematics, multiple copies of which had to be submitted with a patent application, he began researching the problem in his spare time. Early in his research, he began considering the possibility that a solution might lie in the science of photoconductivity. Carlson had learned that the electrical conductivity of a photoconductive material is increased when it is exposed to light and in some cases for a short time thereafter. He moved his research from the library to the laboratory and began experimenting with photoconductivity. When he had proved to himself that the process he called electrophotography could provide a way to readily copy documents, he applied for a preliminary patent to protect his idea.

In 1938 Carlson, working with German physicist Otto Kornei, his assistant, successfully copied an image, and the science of electrophotography—later known as xerography—was born. It took years and significant outside support to refine the process so that it was commercially practical, but in 1948 Haloid Company announced to the world the imminent debut of this exciting new technology.

Carlson was generous with the millions he earned from his discovery of xerography, donating more than $150 million to worthy causes before his sudden death in 1968.

Sources of Information


"50 anos de Xeroxcopias." (November 17, 2001).

"Chester F. Carlson: The Photocopier." The Lemuelson–MIT Prize Program. (November 17, 2001).

Dinsdale, Alfred. "Chester F. Carlson, Inventor of Xerography." Photographic Science and Engineering, Vol. 7, 1963.

Hall, Dennis G., and Rita Hall. "Chester F. Carlson: A Man to Remember." Optics & Photonics News, September 2000.

Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed. 17 Vols. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

World of Invention, 2nd ed. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group, 1999.

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