Xerox process marks 75 years
The building is still standing on 37th Street in Astoria, Queens — home today to a pizza place and car service business.
It was in a small second-story apartment there 75 years ago that Chester Carlson, who had a regular day job and was attending law school while he moonlighted as an inventor, changed the world.
Before Oct. 22, 1938, making a copy of a document was laborious, clunky and time-consuming. It involved anything from retyping or rewriting it to using carbon paper to photography-like systems that were expensive and involved big, cumbersome equipment.
Today, making a copy involves pushing a green button on a photocopier.
The step between the two came in that Astoria apartment. There, making that first photocopy worked like this: Carlson and his lab assistant, Otto Kornei, took a sulfur-coated zinc plate and a glass microscope slide with “10-22-38 Astoria” written on it in ink. They made the room as dark as possible, and Kornei vigorously rubbed a handkerchief on the zinc plate to build up an electrostatic charge. The glass slide went atop the plate, and the two shone a bright light on it for a few seconds. They removed the slide and sprinkled dust-like lycopodium powder onto the zinc plate. They blew off the loose powder, and what remained spelled out “10-22-38 Astoria.”
Carlson later said they repeated the experiment several times “to convince ourselves that it was true, then we made some permanent copies by transferring the powder images to wax paper and heating the sheets to melt the wax. Then we went out to lunch and to celebrate.”
“I know that he always was surprised by the success — he never dreamed it would be as big as it was,” said Hal Bogdonoff, who worked for two years in the 1950s as Carlson's lab manager in Haloid-provided space on Hollenbeck Street in Rochester's 14621 neighborhood. “He said that he was looking for a process to enable people to do copying easier than he'd suffered with when he was the patent attorney and had to hand-copy materials at the library. I don't think he ever visualized the mechanical embodiment and the success it would ultimately reach,” said Bogdonoff, of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Carlson's work grew out of research in the niche field of photoconductivity.
“There was no prior art for him to work off of,” said Ray Brewer, company archivist for Xerox Corp., the company that Carlson essentially built with his discovery of electrophotography or, as some call it, “xerography,” from the Greek words for “dry writing.” Xerox — then known as Haloid, and based in Rochester — in 1947 acquired the rights to develop a xerographic machine.
The path between that Astoria apartment and success was a long one. Between 1939 and 1944, he pitched the technology to more than 20 companies and received more than 20 variations on “not interested.”
For the 75th anniversary, Xerox is planning a multimedia program that it will roll out over the course of the year “to generate excitement and pride and to reinforce our company purpose with our employees around the globe,” Heiser said. “I want our people in Grenoble (France) or Chile to see a little bit of Chester in what they do.”