Dessauer, John Hans

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Dessauer, John Hans

(b. 13 May 1905 in Aschaffenburg, Germany; d. 12 August 1993 in Rochester, New York), chemical engineer and research director of the Xerox Corporation who first recognized the potential importance of the electrostatic photocopying process that came to be known as xerography.

Dessauer, one of three sons of Hans and Bertha Dessauer, was educated in Aschaffenburg and Munich, Germany. In Munich he attended the Technical Institute, from which he received a baccalaureate degree in chemistry in 1924. He then attended the Technical Institute of Aachen, earning a master of science degree in 1927 and a doctorate in 1929, in both chemistry and chemical engineering. Shortly after receiving his doctorate he emigrated to the United States.

In his professional autobiography, My Years with Xerox: The Billions Nobody Wanted (1971), Dessauer recalled his early years in the United States. From 1929 to 1935 he worked for Ansco, which made photography film and paper, but was fired. As Dessauer wrote, “The man who fired me . . . wrote to suggest he had done me a favor; if he had not pushed me out of Ansco I might never have become associated with the Xerox saga. He may be right.” Dessauer then applied for a chemical engineer position with the Rectrigraph Company in Rochester, New York, which made and marketed a photocopying camera. He was hired to perfect a new type of photocopy paper to compete with a product made by the Haloid Company in Rochester. Haloid, however, soon acquired Rectigraph. After meeting Joseph R. Wilson, Haloid’s president, and his son Joseph C. Wilson, a vice president and later president, Dessauer was persuaded to stay with Haloid. He became an American citizen in 1935, and in 1936 he married Margaret Lee, with whom he had three children.

In 1945 Dessauer, then in charge of Haloid’s research and development, read an article in Radio-Electronic Engineering about a discovery just patented by the physicist Chester F. Carlson. The discovery was a photographic process that depended on electrostatic attraction of pigment particles to a coated metal plate. “It was as if lightning had struck when I read that article,” he recalled some years later. He promptly reported it to “Young Joe” Wilson, who, after consulting experts in New York City, went with Dessauer to the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, with which Carlson was affiliated. There they talked at length with Dr. R. M. Schaffert and the other researchers experimenting with Carlson’s electrostatic copying process. The next two years were spent in contractual and technological negotiations with Battelle. By 1947 Carlson’s photocopying process was showing so much promise that Haloid acquired a license for it and to begin marketing the copiers.

For effective marketing, the copying process needed a name that was shorter than the phrase “electrostatic photocopy,” and, after consulting a classics scholar at Ohio State University, the company chose “xerography,” a combination of the Greek words xeros (“dry“) and graphein (“to draw” or “to write“). The trade name Xerox was adopted unanimously at Haloid’s next board meeting: it was short and symmetrical, and the question of how to pronounce the initial X attracted people’s curiosity.

The first Xerox copier did not reach the market for eleven years after the crucial decisions of 1947. Carlson’s original patents from 1940, which he had sold to Battelle, expired at the end of seventeen years, in 1957, but Battelle and Haloid had received a number of subordinate patents. In 1956, Haloid bought Carlson’s patents from Battelle for 50,000 shares of Haloid stock. During the years of development, the Haloid Company continued to produce photosensitive paper and offset masters called Xerox Lith-Masters, its principal products. The company also produced two office copying machines named the Photographic Foto-Flo Recorder and the Foto-Flo Model C, used mainly to produce paper offset masters; these machines became a major source of income for Haloid. The principal research effort during the late 1950s led to the release in 1960 of the Xerox 914, which proved to be a tremendous success.

During this period Young Joe Wilson was exploring the possibility of developing the European market through an English affiliate. Xerography attracted the attention of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation in London. Wilson and John Davis, the chairman of the Rank board, exchanged visits and eventually formed Rank-Xerox, which became a major subsidiary. The Xerox 914 was sufficiently successful to prompt construction of large new production facilities in Webster, on the east side of Rochester. Dessauer estimated, conservatively, that during his years at Xerox (1936–1970) sales increased from $7 million to $1 billion per year. After thirty years with Xerox, Dessauer retired in 1970, having left his active vice presidency in 1968. At that time the Xerox research staff numbered almost 1,300, of which 400 were engaged in developing the Xerox 2400, the successor to the 914. After his retirement Dessauer retained his board membership and planned to set up an office aimed at helping people. A devout Catholic, Dessauer told the New York Times in June 1970, “I want to devote myself mainly to education, religions, and charitable work.”

John Dessauer was a trustee of the New York State Science and Technology Foundation. He held honorary degrees from Fordham University, LeMoyne College, and Clarkson College and was a recipient of the Philipps Award from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Gold Medal of the Industrial Research Institute. He was a member of the National Academy of Engineering, American Chemical Society, American Institute of Chemists, American Optical Society, American Physical Society, and New York Academy of Sciences.

In addition to his autobiography My Years with Xerox: The Billions Nobody Wanted (1971), Dessauer was joint editor, with Harold E. Clark, of Xerography and Related Processes (1965) and a contributor to Research Management. There is a significant review by John Brooks of My Years with Xerox, critical of the ghostwriting of Oscar Schisgall, in the New York Times Book Review (17 Oct. 1971). Obituaries are in the New York Times (14 Aug. 1993) and Contemporary Authors, vol. 142 (1994).

David W. Heron