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Thursday, October 22, 1998 Published at 09:55 GMT 10:55 UK


Sci/Tech

Copy quantity x 60

This office staple did not have a flash start

It's hard to imagine the modern office operating without a photocopier. But the flashing, paper-eating machine, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary, nearly never made it out of the lab.

It was on October 22, 1938, that amateur inventor Chester Carlson made the world's first photocopied image, in a makeshift suburban New York City laboratory.

Carlson, who was also a patent attorney, spent years trying to sell his invention before anyone became seriously interested in developing his technology.

60 years and billions of copies later, however, the company which did eventually capitalise on Carlson's invention, Xerox, is a household name.

Appropriately enough, though, the idea has been copied around the world, and there are dozens of companies competing in the market.

The first copy

The story of the original copier is a classic struggle against the odds.


[ image:  ]
Chester Carlson's unwieldly and messy 1938 prototype did not capture the imagination of business executives and entrepreneurs.

Some 20 companies, including the big names IBM and General Electric, met his invention with what he described as "an enthusiastic lack of interest".

They did not believe there was a market for a copier when carbon paper worked perfectly well.

Finally in 1944, the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, worked with him to refine the process he called "electrophotography".

Three years later, the Haloid Company, a New York-based maker of photographic paper, obtained a licence to develop and market a copying machine based on the technology.

Introducing dry-writing

With solid backing behind it, it was time to address what the process should be called.

A professor of classical languages at Ohio State University suggested "xerography," derived from the Greek words for "dry" and "writing".

The words xerography, which describes the process, and Xerox, the actual product, were trademarked and introduced to the marketplace in 1948.

Inspired by some success with the copiers in their first decade Haloid changed its name to Haloid Xerox Inc.

The name Haloid was dropped in 1961 after wide acceptance of the companies first machine to use ordinary paper.

Chester Carlson was never a signed-up Xerox employee. But his invention is behind the growth of the world's biggest companies, which has revenues of $18.2bn and employs more than 91,000 people worldwide.

Having made its fortune dealing in paper, it went on to make some interesting innovations. These included the mouse, the laser printer and the icon-based desktop, the Graphical User Interface, which Apple and subsequently Microsoft both turned to their advantage.

Although information now migrates seamlessly via e-mail, fax and scanners, the paperless office seems unlikley to become a reality. In fact, Xerox has found that paper use in offices which have e-mail has increased by 40 percent.

Health fears

Doubts about the effect of photocopiers were raised earlier this year when research suggested that ozone produced by photocopiers could be responsible for eye and breathing problems in offices.



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