Even people who have never watched a basketball game know who Michael Jordan is; most Americans have used Carlson’s invention, but very few have any idea who he is. He developed the theory and science for the modern process of copying documents in 1937, and offered it to more than 20 major corporations, including IBM, General Electric, Eastman Kodak, and RCA – all of whom, according to Carlson, exhibited an “enthusiastic lack of interest” for what Fortune magazine would later describe as “the most successful product ever marketed in America.” In 2004, worldwide, there were about 3 trillion pages copied, about 500 for every single person on earth.
Chester Carlson was born in Seattle in 1906. A defining feature of his early life was the fact that his father, a barber, had arthritis in his spine, and developed tuberculosis when he was in his 30s. He was in pain most of the time, and always searching for a place to live that would lessen the pain. He took his wife, Ellen, and Chester, an only child, to California, then moved the family to a camp in the Arizona desert, then to an adobe hut on a Mexican farm, then back to California. In the fall of 1915, when Chester was 9, Chester’s father decided that cold might be better for him than heat, and so they moved to a shed in the mountains outside San Bernardino, where the winter snows were several feet deep. According to a story in Smithsonian magazine, “Each morning, Ellen used a hand mirror to flash a signal to a worried storekeeper in the valley below, to let him know that they had survived another night” in the freezing mountains.
Chester’s mother was the family’s sole source of income, sometimes working as a housekeeper, and, despite the poverty and the hardships, she “managed to make the family’s poverty seem like a game – a challenging puzzle that could be solved with good spirits and ingenuity.” Perhaps this was the training that lead Carlson to develop the creativity and determination that would lead to his success. Chester was faced with the need to make a living early on – by the time he was in high school he was his family’s principal breadwinner. He considered a wide variety of different occupations, but decided, at age 15, that his best chance would be to invent something useful. He thought about a rotating billboard, a machine for cleaning shoes, and a trick safety pin that could be made to look like it had pierced a finger, among many other things.
Carlson was fascinated by printing, and as a schoolboy published a magazine, the Amateur Chemists Press, for his classmates. He told one interviewer that he had been “impressed with the tremendous amount of labor involved in getting something into print”, and, as often happens when a creative person has a first hand encounter with a problem, began figuring out a way to improve the situation. During his junior year of high school, his mother – the one positive force in his life – died of tuberculosis at age 53. He was devastated by her death, as he had hoped that the success of which he was dreaming would allow him to provide her with “a few things in life” to counter the many deprivations she had suffered. As it was, he and his father were forced into living in a former chicken coop, one room with a concrete floor. He often slept outside.
Despite the brutal living conditions at home, and the fact that he had been the only student in the local school when his family lived in the mountains, Carlson had always been a good student. After working his way through a junior college, he transferred to Cal Tech to study physics. During this time he supported not only himself but this father as well, working odd jobs and at a cement mill. His first job after graduation, at the beginning of the Depression, was at Bell Labs in New York City. Like Da Vinci and many later inventors, he continued to record numerous far-fetched ideas for new products in his notebooks: a raincoat with gutters to channel water away from the pants legs, a toothpaste with replaceable bristles, and other school boyish brainstorms.
While copying long passages from law books as part of his evening law school classes, he was reminded of the need for a better way to make copies. He put his physics education to good use thinking about the science that would later form the basis for the Xerox process. Based on this thinking, he developed a very rudimentary copying process. After filing his first patent in 1937 for the very complex process that would become the basis of document copying, he spent six years trying to find companies that would help him develop the process. Battelle Memorial Institute, a private, non-profit research institute, finally agreed, in 1944, to work with Carlson, and to invest the whopping sum of $3,000 in additional research.
In 1947 the process caught the attention of Haloid, a photographic supplies company, which would later change its name to Xerox. Haloid paid Carlson $2,500 for a one year license to develop office copiers. Thus, Carlson received a payment for the first time, 10 years after patenting the idea. But not only was the science behind the idea quite complex, it was equally tough to turn that science into a practical copying machine. The first version developed by Haloid, working with Battelle, required something like 50 different manual operations each time a copy was made. It took another ten years, and millions in investment, before a useful machine was created. During this time, Carlson created many more useful advances that helped to bring copying close to practical reality, and for which he was awarded 36 more patents.
The group of learned but under funded physicists who worked with Carlson and Haloid had to scrimp during the long development process, including scrounging supplies from a local junkyard. On Tuesdays, they made sure not to open the windows of the house they used as a lab, so as not to soil the white linens hung out on that day of the week by the lady living in the house next door. The first “practical” copier, the model 914, weighed 650 pounds and was delivered in March of 1960, 13 years after Haloid began developing it and 23 years since Carlson first patented the idea. But, having finally made the copier easy to use, if still subject to frequent breakdowns, it quickly became an indispensable part of business life. As soon as the 914 model was introduced, it was used more frequently than anticipated, a trend that has continued to this day, as computers and the “paperless” office have spurred, rather than decreased, the demand for paper copies.
Carlson eventually earned around $200 million in royalties from his invention, but he always lived simply. He gave away most of his wealth, always anonymously, including large gifts to Cal Tech, and organizations that promoted world peace and civil rights. He bought apartment buildings in Washington and New York and made sure they were racially integrated. He gave millions to the United Negro College fund and other black colleges. . Among the long list of his beneficiaries, either while living or through the trust he established, were schools, libraries and international relief agencies. He died at age 62 from a heart attack. After his death U Thant, Carlson’s friend and Secretary General of the United Nations, wrote “He was generally known as the inventor of Xerography, and although it was an extraordinary achievement in the technological and scientific field, I respected him more as a man of exceptional moral stature and as a humanist…He belonged to that rare breed of leaders who generate in our hearts faith in man and hope for the future.” Despite the tremendous pace of technological innovation, the basic process which Carlson developed is still in use today, and the Chester and Dorris Carlson Charitable Trust is still giving away the profits which he earned.