Joseph Chamberlain Wilson

views updated

Joseph Chamberlain Wilson

Joseph Chamberlain Wilson (1909-1971) was the manager of the Haloid Company which, through Wilson's vision, bought the rights to developing the process later called xerography and became, in 1961, the Xerox Corporation. Xerography revolutionized the world of office management in the 1960s.

Joseph Chamberlain Wilson was born on December 19, 1909, in Rochester, New York. His grandfather, also named Joseph C. Wilson, settled in the city in the late 19th century and in 1903 helped found M. H. Kuhn Co., which in 1906 became the Haloid Company, and still later would become the Xerox Corporation. The elder Wilson was absorbed with politics, serving as alderman, city treasurer, and mayor, so management of the firm devolved upon his son, Joseph R. Wilson.

The name haloid referred to chemicals known as halogens, salts of which are used in the making of conventional photographic emulsions. During the 1920s the firm undertook extensive research to find a better sensitized paper for photocopying, which resulted in 1930 in Haloid Record, a greatly improved type of photographic paper. This product met with instant success, allowing the firm to maintain a full production staff throughout the Depression years.

It was at this time in the mid-1930s that young Joseph C. Wilson joined the family business. Having graduated from the University of Rochester in 1931, Wilson got an M.B.A. at Harvard in 1933. He was named secretary of Haloid in 1936 and in 1944 became vice-president. During these years Joseph C. Wilson assisted his father, who was president of Haloid, in directing most of the firm's business toward the war effort in World War II. This helped to greatly expand the company's business, so that annual sales, which stood at just $1.8 million in 1938, were at $6.8 million in 1946. Profits on these sales, however, were only $150,000. The younger Wilson was keenly aware that the firm needed a new product and a new technology if it were to have any kind of a future. He thus began a search which would end with the purchase of the rights to a new technique called xerography.

John H. Dessauer, research director at Haloid, found an old article in Radio News by Chester F. Carlson, then an employee of Bell Labs. In the article Carlson described a process which he called electrophotography. The process, as described by Carlson, did not require sensitized paper or liquid chemicals. Instead, it used an application of a fine powder upon the electrostatic deposition of an image and the fixing on ordinary stationary of the resultant image through the application of heat to the powdered surface of the paper. Later the process would be renamed xerography, which means dry writing.

Carlson had developed the process in 1938 and then spent six fruitless years trying to interest someone in it. During this time he was turned down by more than 20 companies, including IBM, Remington Rand, RCA, and General Electric. Even the National Inventors Council dismissed his idea as impractical. He did get the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, to help him develop the process, and it was to them and Carlson that Wilson turned with his negotiations which resulted in the granting to Haloid of limited commercial rights to the process in 1946. The rights were subsequently broadened, and in 1948 the process was demonstrated publically by Haloid and Battelle under a new name—xerography. Over the next six years Wilson paid out over $3.5 million to develop the process, but the payoff to him and his company was enormous, as Xerox Corporation became one of the industrial phenomenons of the mid-20th century. In 1956 Haloid Xerox had net sales of under $7 million, employed 735 workers, and had ten research scientists and engineers. By the time of Wilson's death in 1971, sales had mushroomed to over $3 billion and there were over 25,000 employees. Joseph C. Wilson served as chief executive officer until his death. In 1961 the firm's name was changed to Xerox Corporation.

Wilson and Xerox's main breakthrough came in 1960, when the Xerox 914, the first production-line copier, was introduced. This was a desk-size, pushbutton machine capable of copying anything (printed, written, drawn, or three dimensional); it was able to do it fast and dry and on ordinary paper. This was a revolution in office copying and the great fulfillment of Wilson's vision of a dozen years earlier. The machines were rented out by Xerox and the unit charge for their use decreased as larger numbers of copies were made. Whole new office systems were developed, adapted to fit the particular needs of larger clients, and Xerox turned heavily to television as the best method for advertising their revolutionary new machine. And revolutionary it was. The new copier not only transformed its own industry, but also set in motion a vast metamorphosis of basic office practice in industry, government, and schools. Fast, convenient, relatively inexpensive copying was now possible for even small firms and organizations; the days of carbon copies or of routing individual letters up and down a bureaucratic chain were over; filing systems were streamlined; and a whole new world of office management came into being.

Perhaps Wilson's biggest mistake as head of Xerox came in 1969 when he attempted to challenge IBM for a share of the computer manufacturing business. Xerox purchased Scientific Data Systems, a California maker of scientific computers. IBM immediately countered with an announcement of their intention to enter the dry-copy industry. Xerox battled it out with IBM for five years, losing over $100 million, and finally pulled out of the computer business in 1975. But Wilson's concern about the wisdom of remaining so closely tied to the copier business was well founded. By the mid-1970s the market was pretty well saturated. In response, Xerox began moving toward the world of the electronic office—"intelligent" copiers, word processors, high-speed printers, and the like.

Joseph C. Wilson early became convinced that a corporation had a duty to support the institutions which made possible a free, healthy, and educated society. To this end, Xerox pioneered a new era of television in 1964 when it sponsored a six-part prime-time series on the United Nations which was largely devoid of commercials. Xerox was also the first company in the nation to adopt a social service leave program through which employees could take as much as a year off, with full pay and benefits, to devote themselves to some worthy cause. When an irate stockholder complained of the corporation's largess, he was told: "You can sell your stock or try to throw us out, but we are not going to change."

Wilson served as a trustee of the University of Rochester for many years, and in 1965 named the university as the ultimate beneficiary of an irrevocable trust upon the death of his wife, set up with 90,000 shares of Xerox stock. In 1967 he gave the university an additional 50,000 shares. He died on November 22, 1971.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Joseph Wilson. The best coverage of the birth and development of Xerox is in John H. Dessauer, My Years With Xerox (1971). Daniel J. Boorstin, The Americans: The Democratic Experience (1973) nicely summarizes the social impact of the Xerox copier. □

About this article

Joseph Chamberlain Wilson

Updated About content Print Article