Inspired by the likes of Thomas Edison and in search of a way to escape financial hardship, Chester Carlson had long held onto the idea of becoming an inventor.
With his development of the electrophotography process, he would achieve his wish and make a significant mark upon the world.
Born in Seattle, Washington in 1906 Carlson had to grow up quickly. With little household income due to illness of both parents, he was required to earn a wage from a young age. By thirteen he was major provider for his household, fitting work into his days before and after school.
In school his interests seemed to gravitate towards science and pursuits into graphic design, in particular from a publishing perspective – the idea of producing print copies of documents and text a captivating concept for the young man destined to change that industry forever.
As a high school student he developed a handcrafted newspaper, This and That, while, at the same time, taking an after-school job at a professional printers. Trying to publish his magazine using the traditional methods available to him at the printers was laborious and Carlson grew frustrated by the task.
The seed of his idea for a new way of copying was born.
The Zest for Invention
Carlson worked tirelessly to enable himself a place at University, finally graduating with a degree in Physics in 1930.
His mother had died a few years earlier and his father was, by now, too sick to work. Carlson was desperate for a way out of poverty, at a time when the world was plunging headlong into depression. The idea of a developing some kind of invention seemed like a good way to climb out of the economic mire.
Carlson managed to find work as a research engineer with Bell Laboratories in New York City. Within a year he had moved into the patent department. During his time there he continued to work on ideas of his own; returning always to his passion for printing and his scientific background.
In 1933 Carlson was fired from Bell but, despite the continued depression, he was fortunate to not be out of work for too long. Within two years he had managed to get a job as Head of the Patent Department with P.R. Mallory (who would later become a division of Proctor & Gamble).
By his own admission, however, this kind of office existence didn’t suit him. His drive was for creation invention as a means to financial freedom and personal achievement.
Repeatedly he came back to the notion of creating a means to easily produce exact copies of documents and text.
Through his own experiences in printing and his background as a physics major, Carlson began to develop the idea of creating duplicates via a process of electrostatic charge – using light and ink to attract to positively charged areas of paper.
In October 1938 Carlson had his breakthrough – his invention worked and the world’s first modern photocopier was born.
The problem at the time, however, was that nobody seemed particularly interested!
Battle Memorial and the road to success
Over the next six years, Carlson saw more frustration head his way as he tried to sell the concept to the major companies such as IBM, all of whom declined.
Then, in 1944 and on the point of giving up, his invention caught the interest of the Battle Memorial Institute in Ohio. They agreed to fund further research, to help with development and to seek out interested parties for the idea.
In December 1946 they finally secured a deal. The Haloid Company were already making copying devices and signed an exclusive rights deal to use Carlson’s idea.
Over the next fifteen years the process was developed into workable machines.
Haloid would become Xerox, Carlson found his fortune and the age of the photocopier was born.