Xerox Introduces the First Photocopier

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Xerox Introduces the First Photocopier


The first fully automatic photocopier was introduced by the Xerox Corporation in 1959. It was called the 914, and it could make 7.5 copies per minute on any kind of paper. At that time few companies realized how important the photocopier would be, how many millions of dollars Xerox would make, and how it would become an essential tool of every modern business.


The history of the photocopier is largely the history of the Xerox Corporation. The driving force behind the company was Chester Carlson (1906-1968), an American physicist and patent lawyer. In the 1930s, while he was working as a patent clerk he found that there were never enough copies of a patent. He wanted a better method than copying by hand or sending it out for photographic duplication.

Carlson began to study the problem, and his researches led him to the field of photoconductivity. He found that certain metals' and alloys' electrical conductivity will change after being exposed to light. Carlson's flash of inspiration was quite simple: if you shone an image onto a photoconductive surface, there would be different degrees of electrical current through the light and dark regions. If there were a way to attract some sort of ink to the different regions of conduction, a reproduction of the image could be made.

In 1938 Carlson and an assistant, Otto Kornei, made the first photocopy by projecting a slide image onto a piece of sulfur-coated zinc. This charged up the surface. After that they covered it with a powder of lycopodium (the spores of a moss). They blew off the powder and saw that it had glued itself to the sulfur, showing the words "10-22-38 Astoria," a fuzzy but true reproduction of their slide.

Carlson took his invention to Kodak, IBM, General Electric, and other companies, all of which turned him down. In 1944 Carlson met a researcher from the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit group which funded his research. Carlson and Battelle joined up with the Haloid Company, a maker of photographic paper, in 1946. Eventually the two merged and changed the company name to XeroX in 1961. (The X at the end was in imitation of Kodak, and was later changed to a lower case x.) The word came from their term for photocopying, xerography—xero was Greek for dry, and graphos was writing. Today the generic term photocopying has replaced xerography. (At one time the Japanese used the term ricohing, after the name of that country's best-selling photocopier.) Xerox produced the first manual photocopier in 1949. This machine, the Model A, was difficult and messy to use and was not very successful.

After 10 years of redesigning their photocopier Xerox produced the first fully automatic photocopier, the 914. With a massive advertising campaign the copier first went on sale in late 1959, with delivery beginning in 1960. Xerox leased their products, and replaced and repaired all their machines. Xerox was quickly filling orders as fast as it could. Two years after the 914's introduction they had sold $60 million worth of photocopiers. By the middle of the 1960s Xerox had revenues of nearly half a billion dollars.


Before the 914 there were four ways of copying documents: by hand, photography, carbon copies, which transferred impressions through multiple sheets of paper held in a typewriter, or the mimeograph, a machine that made copies with ink from a specially prepared master document. Any company that wanted to make thousands of copies of a document had to contract out to printing companies. The costs associated with this were large and were beyond the reach of most smaller companies and individuals. Xerox's 914 changed all of this, because companies leased their machine and were charged according to the number of copies made.

After the successful introduction of the 914, Xerox was looking for ways to expand its market. The first way was to make a smaller desktop copier—the 914 weighed 650 pounds (295 kg). The 813, the first desktop copier, was developed during the early 1960s and was released at the end of 1963. Like the 914, it sold extremely well. From the early 60s to the early 70s Xerox was one of the fastest-growing stocks in the world.

Modern photocopiers work on Carlson's original principles, but the innards are much different. The first stage is to give the photoconductive surface, a hollow cylinder called the drum, a charge by running a small electric current through it. This surface, usually made from selenium, is kept in the dark to preserve its charge. Next, the document to be copied is illuminated by passing a light over it. Mirrors reflect the light coming off the document onto the rotating drum. Anywhere the light hits the drum, the electrical charge is dispersed. Wherever there is text or an image, the charge is conserved. Then toner, microscopic particles of black dust with an opposite charge, is passed over the drum by a series of belts: it sticks only to the charged (dark) areas. Now that the toner is stuck to the drum, a sheet of paper with a small static charge is passed over the drum. The toner is transferred from the drum to the paper by static electricity. The paper is pressed to ensure adhesion and heated to dry the toner. The copying process is now complete and the paper is ejected from the photocopier.

With the successes of Xerox it was inevitable that other companies would enter this market. Many Japanese companies, including Canon, Ricoh, Minolta, and others soon had competing products in the market. They introduced their first models during the 1970s. But the products were of an extremely low quality: some even caught fire. They had little chance of making a dent in Xerox's domination of the market. Over time the quality improved and many of these companies were able to erode Xerox's market share by entering the low-end of the market and working their way up. These copiers were less expensive than Xerox's, and weren't high-performance machines. But with companies that made few copies, or where speed was not a priority, the Japanese competitors were successful.

One example is the Ricoh Corporation, which introduced the Savin 750 in the summer of 1970. It cost two and a half times less than Xerox's closest comparable model, and had one other striking advantage: it used liquid toner. Xerox's toner was a powder that needed to be melted, sprayed onto the paper, then cooled to harden. All these steps forced the copying process to require at least a few seconds. The Savin 750 had liquid toner, which reduced this to a one-step process. It was simpler than Xerox's method, which made it faster and cheaper.

Today photocopiers are found everywhere, ranging from offices to schools to libraries to convenience stores. Millions of copies are made daily throughout the world with the touch of a single button. This ease of use has also brought with it some problems. Many publishers worry about plagiarism and copyright infringement. When it is easy to copy 30 pages out of a textbook many publishers fear they are losing revenue when pages and chapters are extracted from books by individuals and groups to avoid paying for entire, often costly, textbooks and reference works. The law governing this in most countries is called fair use, where individuals are allowed to make limited copies for their own personal use. As well, many universities and schools have permission to make limited copies of portions of academic journals and textbooks for use by students.

Modern copiers are versatile machines with many features. Photocopiers can collate multiple pages into any order, staple papers, fold them, punch binder-holes, and copy onto both sides of a sheet of paper. Photocopiers can accommodate more varieties of paper; images can be placed on transparencies and other materials. Almost any size paper can be used, sometimes measuring over four feet square. The speed of copying has also gone up—high-end copiers can now make up to 150 copies per minute of a single page.

Color copiers, which began to arrive on the market in the 1970s, work on similar principles to black and white photocopiers. They work more slowly because they make a copy in stages, analyzing how different primary colors mix to form the final image. Color images are created by scanning the image multiple times; each time the document is scanned it is seen through different color filters. After breaking the document down to its components colors, four different colored toners (yellow, cyan, magenta, and black) are used to build up a color image by layers.

Digital technologies have changed the process of making copies. Digital photocopiers can store the image of a page in memory and then print as many copies as required by using the stored copy instead of the original. This allows a user to walk away with his original while the copying process continues. A digital copier also has other features that give people more control over the quality of the copy. Using controls on the copier, hole-punch marks, margin notes, or other defects can be removed. Images can also be moved, magnified, or centered on the finished copy. Xerox also invented the laser printer, which uses a laser to trace an image onto a photoconductive surface, instead of reflected light. Their first model, the 9700, was released in 1977.


Further Reading


Dessauer, John H. My Years With Xerox: The Billions Nobody Wanted. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.

Jacobson, Gary and John Hillkirk. Xerox: American Samurai. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

Kearns, David T and David A. Nadler. Prophets in theDark. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.


Scientific American: Working Knowledge: Photocopiers.

Stanford University Libraries: Copyright and Fair Use.

Xerox—The Document Company.