Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 239:
XEROX

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 239.

Today, we reproduce an image. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Chester Carlson had a few hours between meetings one afternoon in 1968. He was 62 -- a man who didn't make friends easily and who lived inside his own head. He was also a multimillionaire. Carlson went to a movie that afternoon and there, as he watched images flickering on the screen, he died of a heart attack.

His lonely death was curiously fitting. Images and loneliness had been the twin themes of his life. His father died when he was 13, so he worked to help support his desperately poor family and to put himself through school. In one job he was a printer's assistant. That started Carlson thinking about the difficulties of reproducing images.

He labored on like a galley slave -- all the time dogged by a sense of inferiority and inadequacy. He graduated from Cal. Tech during the Depression. Then he barely kept employed while poverty swirled about him. And in his off hours he worked in the chemistry lab that he'd made out of his own kitchen. He was out to invent a cheap way to reproduce images on paper, electrostatically.

Carlson patented a copying process in 1937, before he'd really figured out how to make it work. Author Dean Golembeski tells us that he hired a German refugee named Otto Kornei to help him. Working on a budget of 10 dollars a month, they finally managed to reproduce an inked message by electrostatic means. Kornei saw little future in the process, so he went on to a regular job. Carlson spent the next six years looking for corporate backing.

Battelle finally bought into his patent, and Carlson vanished into the work of developing the process. First his marriage fell apart. Then Battelle gave up on the process. Finally, a little company called Haloid bought the patent rights and hired Carlson.

Haloid turned to a Greek scholar for help in naming the process. Since it didn't use any photographic liquids, he suggested that they base the name on the Greek word for dry -- xeros. He suggested that they call it "Xerography." That word was simplified to "Xerox," and Carlson's dream was finally on its way. It took another 13 years to produce the first really successful Xerox machine, but then Carlson was suddenly worth 150 million dollars.

He spent his last few years working as hard at giving his money away as he'd worked to earn it in the first place. He made sure that his old colleague Kornei also became wealthy. The money wasn't really part of the deal he'd forged with his life. He'd struggled to survive and to gain self-acceptance. He'd chased the images that danced in his head. In the end, he'd given the world much more than it'd given him. In the end, maybe we should call those copies we so depend on "Carlsons" instead of "Xeroxes."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Golembeski, D.J., Struggling to Become an Inventor. American Heritage of Invention and Technology, Winter 1989, pp. 8-15.

This episode has been substantially revised as Episode 2689.

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode