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Happy Birthday, Copy Machine! Happy Birthday, Copy Machine!

Oct 23, 2013
Originally published on October 23, 2013 2:37 pm

Copy machines can be found in every office, and most of us take them for granted. But 75 years ago, the technology that underpins the modern photocopier was used for the first time in a small apartment in Queens.

Inventor Chester Carlson used static electricity created with a handkerchief, light and dry powder to make the first copy on Oct. 22, 1938.

The copier didn't get on to the market until 1959, more than 20 years later. When it did, the Xerox machine prompted a dramatic change in the workplace.

The first commercial model, the Xerox 914, was bulky and cumbersome. It weighed nearly 650 pounds. It was the size of about two washing machines and was prone to spontaneous combustion.

But even literally going up in flames wasn't enough to kill the product. In fact, it was in high demand.

"There was a distinct need for simple copying like this, and it just took off," says Ray Brewer, historical archivist for Xerox Corp. "We sold thousands of these machines, and the demand was such that we were manufacturing them in large quantities."

Brewer says the popularity of Xerox technology abroad inspired more clandestine uses for the copier. Some machines actually had miniature cameras built into them during the Cold War for the purpose of spying on other countries.

Back at home, the copier was proving to be a godsend for secretaries. One Xerox commercial features a female secretary saying:

"I make perfect copies of whatever my boss needs by just turning a knob and pushing a button. Anything he can see I can copy in black and white on ordinary paper. I can make seven copies a minute. ... Sometimes my boss asks me which is the original, and sometimes, I don't know."

Author and historian Lynn Peril says the machines had to have been "fabulously liberating."

"Oh my God, you didn't have to work with all the lousy carbon paper," she says. "You could just take it and put it on this glass surface and press a button and you've got as many copies as you wanted."

The beauty of the technology, Peril says, was that it saved time for office workers without making their workplace role obsolete.

Angele Boyd is a business analyst at the International Data Corp. She says copier technology created a more democratic information system.

"Until then, you needed to go to a press or you needed to go to a third party external print shop to produce that kind of quality output," she says.

The core technology in the copier, later transferred to printers and scanners, has remained the same since the 1930s.

Copyright 2014 WXXI Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit http://www.wxxi.org/.

Transcript

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We're marking that anniversary of something that many of us take for granted.

(SOUNDBITE OF COPY MACHINE)

GREENE: Seventy-five years ago this week, an inventor named Chester Carlson produced the first-ever photocopy in his tiny apartment in Queens, New York. His invention made Xerox a household name and revolutionized the workplace. Forget the water cooler. I think some of the deepest conversations took place around the copier.

From member station WXXI, Kate O'Connell reports.

KATE O'CONNELL, BYLINE: Copy machines can be found in every office, and most of us take them for granted. But early models of the Xerox photocopiers weren't without their kinks. The first commercial model, the Xerox 914, was bulky and cumbersome. It weighed nearly 650 pounds. It was the size of about two washing machines and it was prone to spontaneous combustion.

But even literally going up in flames wasn't enough to kill the product. In fact, it was in high demand.

RAY BREWER: There was a distinct need for simple copying like this, and it just took off. We sold thousands of these machines, and the demand was such that we were manufacturing them in large quantities.

O'CONNELL: Ray Brewer is the historical archivist for Xerox. Brewer says the popularity of Xerox technology abroad inspired more clandestine uses for the copier. The 914 model had some James Bond flair in its past. Some machines even had miniature cameras built into them during the Cold War for the purpose of spying on other countries.

While back at home, the copier was proving to be a godsend for secretaries.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I make perfect copies of whatever my boss needs by just turning a knob and pushing a button. Anything he can see, I can copy in black and white on ordinary paper.

LYNN PERIL: I mean, that had to be fabulously liberating.

O'CONNELL: Author and historian Lynn Peril says the machines were a real gift for office girls.

PERIL: Oh my god, you didn't have to work with the lousy carbon paper and all of that. You could just take it and put it on this glass surface and press a button and you've got as many copies as you wanted?

O'CONNELL: Peril says the beauty of the technology was that it saved time for the female office worker without making her workplace role obsolete. But despite its success and continuing legacy, the technology almost never saw the light of day. It took inventor Chester Carlson more than 20 years to take his invention from the kitchen of his small apartment to the commercial market.

He used static electricity created with a handkerchief, coupled with light and dry powder to make the first copy. And once it hit offices, the Xerox machine prompted a dramatic change in the ability of a single person to communicate with large numbers of people. Angele Boyd is a business analyst at the International Data Corporation. She says copier technology created a more democratic information system.

ANGELE BOYD: The laser printer brought to the desktop and the common man in the office the ability to produce output that until then you needed to go to a press or you needed to go to a third party external print shop to produce that kind of quality output.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I can make seven copies in a minute. Sometimes my boss asks me which is the original since sometimes I don't know.

O'CONNELL: The core technology in the copier, later transferred to printers and scanners, has remained the same since the 1930s. For NPR News, I'm Kate O'Connell. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.