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The Photocopier: First Image from Moss, Sulfur and a Handkerchief Rubbing

By Neal McChristy
30-Jul-99

Chester "10-22-38 Astoria," were the first words seen by Otto Kornei. He had seen the first photocopy.

Photocopier Inventor Chester Carlson (1906-68) had asked for the German physicist's help to invent a copying process in Astoria, Queens, New York City in the back of a beauty salon. Carlson, a California Institute of Technology graduate, had worked on a process using photoconductivity to make copies. Carlson had at one time worked for a patent law firm preparing duplicate copies of patent applications, a tedious hand-copying process. He was then preoccupied with a way to make dry duplicate copies without using photography.

Photoconductivity research had determined that light striking certain materials increases the conductivity of a surface. What Kornei did was to cover a zinc plate with sulfur, write the words on a slide, darken the room, make a charge by rubbing it with a handkerchief, then place the slide on the plate and put it under a bright light. Then he covered the surface with lycopodium powder, which is a waxy spore from clubmoss. Carlson, once the image was seen, heated wax and put it on the spores, which became the first photocopy when peeled.

Carlson was turned down by 20 companies from 1939-44, including IBM and General Electric. But Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio, made a royalty-sharing arrangement with Carlson and eventually signed a development contract with the Haloid Company of Rocheser, N.Y., in 1947. Batttelle used iron powder mixed with ammonium chloride and plastic to make the "dry ink" used in the machines. Haloid marketed the first flat-plate machine in 1949, but the Haloid Xerox 914, introduced in 1959, was the first practical use of the machine, made simpler by using a drum. The Haloid Corporation bdecided to use xerography from the Greek words xeros for "dry" and graphos for "writing," as Carlson had marketed it as a dry copy machine.

While Carlson's invention later revolutionized offices, it wasn't the first copying process. From rubbing to lithography to the ferric-salt blueprinting process (invented 1842, came to U.S. in 1876) and it's diazo-salt brother, to mimeographs (1887), copying in various formats had been pursued by hundreds of inventors throughout the ages. But Carlson was the first to invent a process that could easily be used by office people.

In 1961, Haloid Xerox changed it's name to Xerox. Carlson, a multimillionaire, donated $100 million to causes before dying of a heart attack on 57th Street in New York in 1968.

Web sites:
Scientific American article by Chip Holt about Chester Carlson and the photocopier invention.
Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Story about Chester Carlson on the Web site of Steve Silverman, a science teacher from Albany, N.Y.
Xerox Online Fact Book
BBC News article about photocopier.
Chronology of office copying processes by Luis Nadeau.

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