Chester Floyd Carlson (February 8, 1906 – September 19, 1968) was an American physicist, inventor, and patent attorney born in Seattle, Washington. He invented the process of instant document copying which he called electrophotography, and which was subsequently named xerography and commercialized by the Haloid Corporation (Xerox). A hard worker, he persisted in his quest despite meeting disappointment and failure for many years before finally succeeding.
His invention did more than make him a millionaire many times over—it transformed copyright law and the way people work. The changes xerography brought about continue to reverberate, and have led made possible many other inventions such as the laser printer and fax machine.
When Carlson was a young man in his teenage years, both his parents contracted tuberculosis and his father also suffered from arthritis of the spine. Because of their illness, Carlson worked to support his family from an early age. His mother died when he was 17 years old and his father several years later. In 1930 Carlson enrolled at California Institute of Technology in Riverside, California and earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics and began working for Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York as a research engineer. Finding the work dull and routine, Carlson transferred to the patent department at Bell Labs. Laid off from work in 1933 during the Great Depression, he found another job as a clerk with a patent attorney close to New York City's Wall Street. After a year there he got a better job with the patent department of P.R. Mallory Company, a New York electronics firm. His duties there included spending long hours duplicating his work by hand. This frustrating and tedious work inspired him to search for an easier, more efficient method of duplicating. Looking to improve his situation, Carlson began to study law at night at New York Law School in 1936, receiving his Bachelor of Law Degree in 1939. His training in patent law at New York Law School enabled his search for an improved method of document duplication later, when he began to make progress with the basic principles of electrophotography.
Carlson once said, "Work outside of school hours was a necessity at an early age, and with such time as I had I turned toward interests of my own devising, making things, experimenting, and planning for the future. I had read of Edison and other successful inventors, and the idea of making an invention appealed to me as one of the few available means to accomplish a change in one's economic status, while at the same time bringing to focus my interest in technical things and making it possible to make a contribution to society as well."
Carlson continued thinking about reproducing print work throughout his early career. When asked by author A. Dinsdale why he chose this field, Carlson said, "Well, I had had a fascination with the graphic arts from childhood. One of the first things I wanted was a typewriter—even when I was in grammar school. Then, when I was in high school I liked chemistry and I got the idea of publishing a little magazine for amateur chemists. I also worked for a printer in my spare time and he sold me an old printing press which he had discarded. I paid for it by working for him. Then I started out to set my own type and print this little paper. I don't think I printed more than two issues, and they weren't much. However, this experience did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes. I started a little inventor's notebook and I would jot down ideas from time to time."
"There was a gap of some years, but by 1935 I was more or less settled. I had my job, but I didn't think I was getting ahead very fast. I was just living from hand to mouth, you might say, and I had just got married. It was kind of a hard struggle. So I thought the possibility of making an invention might kill two birds with one stone; it would be a chance to do the world some good and also a chance to do myself some good."
While working as a patent clerk, Carlson often thought of how convenient it would be to have easily made copies of patent specifications. His job required the preparation of multiple copies for submission to the United States Patent Office, and making copies often took many tedious hours for Carlson, drawing and re-typing documents. Photostats, while an alternative at that time, were too costly and expensive to operate. Carlson believed there was a better way. He knew there had to be a quicker method and with time he would find it.
He also knew research and development laboratories of many companies were already working on chemical and thermal means of copying papers. Carlson began to think about different ways of doing the same thing. Months of research at the New York Public Library led him to think about photoconductivity, a process by which light can increase the electric conductivity of certain kind of materials under certain conditions. The basics of the process are simple in principle. When light and shadow strike an electrically charged plate of a certain material, the dark parts can attract an electrostatic or magnetic powder while the light part repels it. If the powder can be fused or melted to the page, it can then form a near-exact copy of the original paper.
Carlson patented his developments every step along the way. He filed his first preliminary patent application on October 18, 1937. It took him 15 years to establish the basic principles of electrophotography. He conducted his early experiments with sulfur in his apartment kitchen. These were smoky and bad smelling and he was soon encouraged to find another place. At about the same time, he developed arthritis of the spine, like his father. He pressed on with his experiments, however, in addition to his law school studies and his regular job.
To make things easier, he hired Otto Kornei, a physicist who had fled the Nazi regime in Germany. They set up their laboratory in a back room of a house in Astoria, Queens.
On October 22, 1938, they had their historic breakthrough. Kornei wrote the words 10.-22.-38 ASTORIA. in India ink on a glass microscope slide. The physicist prepared a zinc plate with a sulfur coating, darkened the room, rubbed the sulfur surface with a handkerchief to apply an electrostatic charge, then laid the slide on the zinc plate, exposing it to a bright, incandescent light. Together they removed the slide, sprinkled lycopodium powder to the sulfur surface, gently blew the excess powder away, and pressed the image surface to a sheet of wax paper. They then heated the paper, melting the wax off, and discovered they had made their first near-perfect duplicate.
Years of hard work and disappointment followed, and years of trying to convince organizations like General Electric, IBM, RCA and the United States Army Signal Corps to invest in the invention. Carlson and Kornei found no one who was interested.
In 1944 Carlson finally struck a deal with Battelle Corporation, a non-profit organization based in Columbus, Ohio and dedicated to sponsoring new inventions. That was the turning point. Battelle soon got the Haloid Company to further develop the concept. Haloid named the process xerography, and coined the name XeroX (as it was originally spelled). Seventeen years later, in 1961, Haloid changed its name to Xerox Corporation.
On October 22, 1948, ten years to the day after that first microscope slide was copied, the Haloid Company made the first public announcement of xerography. They made their first sale of the Haloid Xerox Copier in 1950. The company continued to improve the concept, producing the Xerox 914 in 1959. It was the first truly simple, push-button, plain-paper copier, and was so successful that within the first six months, the number of sales reached what Haloid projected it would sell in the product's entire lifetime.
Carlson realized his early dream of financial success. He received nearly $150,000,000 from his invention, donating more than $100,000,000 to charitable causes, especially organizations supporting the 1960s Civil rights movement, before he died in 1968. According to the Vivekananda Vedanta Society of Chicago, Carlson was a devotee of the Indian guru Ramakrishna, and donated money which was used to found the Vedanta Center in Chicago. In 1981 he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Carlson and his wife Dorris helped to start the Rochester Zen Center with Philip Kapleau in 1966. In his later years he became known for his generous contributions to the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology.
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