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Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and…
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Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the…

by David Owen

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The most surprising thing in the history of xerography is apparently that it works -- getting all the charges and powders lined up depends on subtle, indeed Einsteinian, physics. Running mass-produced, anisotropic paper around all the corners at speed was nearly as hard in practice (come to think of it, that's what users usually see fail even yet).

The zipper was nearly as problematic, but didn't change the world as much. Like the zipper, the Xerox copier came to birth because one very stubborn inventor wouldn't quit. The copier actually has three interlocking hero-narratives of this kind; that of the original inventor, raised in miserable poverty and uncertainty; and the management of the little company that supported years of research and engineering when IBM, and Kodak, and all the other bigs didn't believe; and the engineering teams that got it working.

Chester Carlson, the original inventor, was unbelievably hardworking and smart -- was the financial support of his family by the time he was in high school, worked his way through college, worked and borrowed his way through Caltech, and paid his own way to a law degree when he had his first job. He also managed to buy back a lot of the rights to his first patents and research, so when the machine finally worked he got rich (as did the relatives who had helped put him through Caltech).

The management of Haloid, later Xerox, feels more Edwardian than mid-twentieth, because Joe Wilson had inherited a small company in the optics-and-imaging town and clearly knew a lot of engineering by osmosis. IBM, etc., seem to have literally turned down the option because they couldn't believe anything so different could work.

The engineers sound like every skunkworks, save-the-company, built-from-cheap engineering team ever. Owen says it was the most enthralling thing most of them had done since war work. ( )
  clews-reviews | Feb 6, 2011 |
I am old enough to remember trying to do library research before Xerox. Taking notes longhand, especially with my nearly illegible handwriting, was a chore that I really hated. When xeroxing came along, my life was made a little bit better--I could walk out of the library with something I could at least read and file, even if I didn't always get around to it. I still have several file cabinets of the stuff that I can't bear to throw away.

Mr. Owen has provided a very nice account of how the xerox machine was invented and developed into the indispensable tool we all know today, and a biography of the fascinating man who had the vision to see it through. Some parts of the story are pretty well known by those interested at all in the history of technology, but Owen provides lots of unique material that I've not seen elsewhere. This is not one of those business books that tries to derive "lessons" from xerox's missteps in its later years, but rather focusses on the genesis of the invention, up to the early years after the release of the model 914.

I was most intrigued by the struggle Carlson went through to get any industrial organization to help in the development of the machine--IBM and others really dropped the ball on this one! In the early years, the opinion of the "technical experts" was nearly one of universal dismissal. Later, when development was well underway, the marketing consultants also failed to predict even to an order of magnitude how many copies would be produced at the average business site. The lesson is, if you have something really unique, forget about polls and market research.

There were lots of interesting anecdotes for the author to have some fun with, and he does it very well. I especially appreciated when he injected himself into the story, interviewing some the principals, and even making a xerox by hand. This livens up the story considerably. The bibliography, while not exhaustive, is quite extensive and will be quite handy for anyone mining for another Ph. D. There are 18 pages of glossy photos and plenty of line drawings to help the reader along too.

This is an inspiring tale of how one man can still make a difference, and any reader will come away from it feeling a little better about the prospects for the future of mankind, and a little less cynical about the nature of man, the engineer. ( )
  DonSiano | Oct 20, 2006 |
Book on Chester Carlson and xerography. Heard the author speak at the U of R. Interesting book that gives background on Xerox, Joe Wilson and other local history.
  SLuce | Jul 4, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743251180, Paperback)

A lone inventor and the story of how one of the most revolutionary inventions of the twentieth century almost didn't happen.

Introduced in 1960, the first plain-paper office copier is unusual among major high-technology inventions in that its central process was conceived by a single person. Chester Carlson grew up in unspeakable poverty, worked his way through junior college and the California Institute of Technology, and made his discovery in solitude in the depths of the Great Depression. He offered his big idea to two dozen major corporations -- among them IBM, RCA, and General Electric -- all of which turned him down. So persistent was this failure of capitalistic vision that by the time the Xerox 914 was manufactured, by an obscure photographic-supply company in Rochester, New York, Carlson's original patent had expired.

Xerography was so unusual and nonintuitive that it conceivably could have been overlooked entirely. Scientists who visited the drafty warehouses where the first machines were built sometimes doubted that Carlson's invention was even theoretically feasible. Building the first plain-paper office copier -- with parts scrounged from junkyards, cleaning brushes made of hand-sewn rabbit fur, and a built-in fire extinguisher -- required the persistence, courage, and imagination of an extraordinary group of physicists, engineers, and corporate executives whose story has never before been fully told.

Copies in Seconds is a tale of corporate innovation and risk-taking at its very best.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:09:46 -0400)

"Chester Carlson grew up in poverty, worked his way through junior college and the California Institute of Technology, and made his discovery in solitude in the depths of the Great Depression. He offered his big ideas to two dozen major corporations - among them IBM, RCA, and General Electric - all of which turned him down. So persistent was this failure of capitalist vision that by the time the Xerox 914 was manufactured by an obscure photographic supply company in Rochester, New York, Carlson's original patent had expired. Xerography was so unusual and nonintuitive that it conceivably could have been overlooked entirely. Scientists who visited the drafty warehouses where the first machines were built sometimes doubted that Carlson's invention was even theoretically feasible." "Drawing on interviews, Xerox company archives, and the private papers of the Carlson family, David Owen has woven together a story about persistence, courage, and technological innovation - a story that has never before been fully told."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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