Pioneers of Printing: Chester Carlson and the Invention of Xerography

The photocopier undoubtedly belongs to the last century’s most important inventions for office workers around the globe. This edition of Pioneers of Printing sheds a light onto the life of Chester Carlson, the man who made this magnificent invention.

This edition of Pioneers of Printing revolves around an engineer whose invention has greatly impacted the efficiency of office work over the last 80 years. We’re referring to no one less than Chester Carlson, the inventor of the photocopier.

Offices around the globe have relied on the photocopier for decades. The ability to duplicate anything printed on paper has saved countless hours of work in offices everywhere. That is why we’re taking the time to introduce you to the man responsible for this genius invention.

Early-Life Struggles Made Carlson an Inventor

Chester Floyd Carlson was born on February 8 in 1906 in Seattle, Washington. His early years contributed much to making Carlson the hard-working inventive engineer he later turned out to become. A large plethora of unfortunate events, like his father making bad financial decisions and losing both of his parents to tuberculosis before turning 30, led to Carlson having to take responsibility from an early age on.

His passion for printing started at the age of ten when he created a newspaper with a stamp printing set and distributed it among his friends.

Starting in high school, Carlson had to put in many hours of work to support his family which was plagued by illness. So he worked the printing press that he used to publish a small magazine for amateur chemists.

For Every Problem there’s a Solution

After the Great Depression, when Carlson had already graduated from university, he worked in the patent department at different New York-based companies like Bell Telephone Laboratories and Duracell. It was at that time, he became tired of having to copy the huge amount of patent papers by hand. Carlson came up with the idea of an automated copy machine but hadn’t yet figured out how to make it work.

The scientific breakthrough occurred in 1938 when Carlson and his employee Otto Kornei coated a zinc plate with sulfur and electrically charged the sulfur surface with a handkerchief made out of cotton. After exposing it to light, they were able to sprinkle the slide with lycopodium powder and transfer the image to a wax paper. The paper would then be heated to make the lycopodium “stick“.

The patent for the then invented electrophotography was issued to Carlson on October 6 in 1942.

Carlson Gave Humanity Much More Than Just Xerography

In 1946, Carlson joined Haloid, a Rochester-based photography licensed the rights to electrophotography which they later coined into “xerography”. The company later developed into what is now known as Xerox, a world-leader in photocopiers and a long-time exhibitor at drupa. Carlson stayed with Haloid until 1955 and from that point on served as a consultant until he passed away in 1968 at the age of 62.

During his last years, Carlson, who at that point would’ve been among the wealthiest Americans, gave the largest amounts of his fortune to charitable and philanthropic causes. His intention “to die a poor man”, as he told his wife, earned him much love amongst his peers. At his large memorial service held by Xerox, UN secretary-general U Thant said that

“to know Chester Carlson was to like him, love him and to respect him […] I respected him more as a man of exceptional moral stature and as a humanist.”