University of Rochester Library Bulletin: Chester F. Carlson, Physicist, Lawyer, Inventor, and Humanitarian

Volume XXVII · Number 2 · Winter 1973-1974
Chester F. Carlson: Physicist, Lawyer, Inventor, and Humanitarian

The person who casually -- idly perhaps -- places a sheet of paper upon a surface, presses a button, and subsequently receives a copy of that sheet hardly reflects upon the significance of this photographic process. One has become complacent about a monumental technical development. Happily, the University of Rochester honored the memory of the inventor of xerox copying by dedicating a library to him on October 3, 1972.

In the dedicatory remarks for the naming of this new Chemistry, Biology, and Mathematical Sciences Library, Chancellor W. Allen Wallis stated: "Chester Carlson was a physicist, lawyer, inventor, and humanitarian. He was a generous benefactor of this University . . . he invented an electrostatic printing process called xerography -- a process that not only solved a major problem in office-copying, but radically transformed the entire field of communication."

What was the genesis of this invention? Let the inventor himself speak. In an oral history interview with Prof. Joseph Ermenc,1 Mr. Carlson stated:

"When I was a child I somehow felt drawn to the graphic arts. I know one of my greatest desires when I was only ten years old was to have a typewriter. One of my aunts gave me a toy typewriter with which you could actually type. It was a rubber stamp affair. . . Somehow the graphic arts interested me all through that period.

"When I was going to high school I was the janitor of a newspaper office and of course I saw and worked around linotype machines in the printing and typesetting departments.

"I also worked for a small printer who had a little printing press; I ran the press for him . . . I was impressed with the tremendous amount of labor involved in getting something into print. That set me to thinking about easier ways to do that and I got to thinking about duplicating methods."

The interest, then, was strong from an early age. There was little in the background of his family to indicate that Chester F. Carlson would become a physicist and inventor.

Mr. Carlson's paternal and maternal grandparents came from Sweden -- in part, for religious freedom -- and settled in Minnesota during the nineteenth century. His father, Olof A. Carlson, was a barber who journeyed to the Northwest and Alaska during the gold rush days. He settled in Washington, where Chester F. Carlson was born, in Seattle, on February 8, 1906. Six years later the family removed itself to San Bernardino, California. Young Carlson lived there and in Riverside until 1930.

The story of Chester Carlson's youth and his early work years has the classic flavor of the American success story that is rooted both in devotion to hard work and a philosophy that is basically optimistic. By the time the future inventor was seventeen, his mother was dead and his father was practically a total invalid. Mr. Carlson had always worked to help in the support of his family; he continued this habit during his years of study at Riverside Junior College, and on week-ends and in the summertime when studying the difficult courses at California Institute of Technology. He graduated from the latter in 1930 as a Bachelor of Science, with a science-physics major. It was a grim year for a poor young man to seek a job.

The pattern of his work life -- first with Bell Laboratories and later, from 1934 to 1945, with the P. R. Mallory Company in New York (the latter made electrical and metallurgical products) -- moved from technical concerns to those of a patent attorney. Once again, in 1935, Mr. Carlson was impressed by the great need for producing multiple copies of his work. In his oral history interview, he commented: "When we needed copies of drawings we had to send out to a photocopy firm. Their representative would come in, pick up the drawing, take it to their plant, make a copy, and bring it back. It might be a wait of half a day or even twenty-four hours to get it back." From this period on, Mr. Carlson's work towards the development of xerography took a more concrete form.

"At first I did as much thinking as I could about the problem," said the inventor. "I jotted down my thoughts in my inventor's notebook. But mainly, in the beginning, I started reading. I know I spent many evenings and weekends in the Science and Techology Division of the New York Public Library. I got out everything I could find on printing and duplicating."

Mr. Carlson was searching for a copying method then, as opposed to one that duplicated material from a stencil or a master. He also realized that he was searching for something outside the realm of conventional photography; therefore, his initial step was to experiment with an electro-chemical method. "I realized," he said later, "that it wasn't a very practical method . . . it was even less practical than straight photography. . ."

In his reading, he discovered an article by a Hungarian inventor, Paul Selenyi, who was working in an allied field of facsimile transmission. As Mr. Canson has explained: "He had developed essentially a triode in air. It embodied a heated cathode enclosed in a metal cup which had a small hole in it. Then there was a drum coated with . . .insulating varnish. . . . "  What the Hungarian inventor was working towards was creating a visible image from an electrostatic image. Mr. Carlson, in noting some relationship between his vision and the Hungarian's work, reasoned that to continue his experiments on an electrochemical basis would mean to raise the voltage; to do this would mean risking burning paper instead of copying what was on it. The problem, then, was to develop a foolproof method for insulation. The basic idea for xerography was in his mind by 1937. The long task of experimentation upon a feasible dream began.

For nearly a year he worked on his invention. By the fall of 1938 he decided to find someone to help in the laboratory work. With the part-time help of Otto Kornei, a technique to produce an image evolved within a month: The date and place -- "10/22/38- Astoria" -- apppeared on a two-by three-inch zinc plate, and the first visible step towards xerography was taken. The experimentation progressed; after six months, Mr. Kornei -- prior to his departure -- was able to make up a demonstration kit for the inventor to use when applying for support of his work. The responses to his enquiries were mild: ". . . I found," said Mr. Carlson, "that my little crude demonstration did not impress them. . . . It was hard to find anyone who could visualize what could be done toward the engineering development of the process."

Mr. Carlson then had a model machine constructed. A usable image was finally produced, but the machine broke down. The patient inventor went back to using his little manual plate. Throughout his work, he had protected his invention by copyright. In 1942 a patent was issued for the basic technique of xerography. The machine patent was issued in 1944. In the early part of that year, he had made contact with an engineer at the Battelle Memorial Institute; later, this same man indicated to Mr. Carlson the Institute's interest in a royalty-sharing agreement with him. The Institute would provide money for research to improve the invention in its laboratories. The depth of its research would be left to the Institute's discretion. In essence, Mr. Carlson relinquished active control over his invention with his first Battelle agreement. In 1947 he gave the Institute exclusive license, and he received a share of the royalties according to an agreement he felt was fair.

Joseph Wilson and Dr. John Dessauer of the Haloid Company were searching for something new for the company. They got in touch with Mr. Carlson, who, in turn, informed them about his arrangement with the Battelle Institute. In January 1947, therefore, the Haloid Company (now Xerox, of course) started sponsoring work at the Battelle Institute; eventually, the Xerox Company took over the expense of continuous developments in xerography. The invention from this time until the present day has had a famous history. Mr. Carlson had achieved his dream.

The creative inventor is an artist in his own right, even though most inventions -- such as xerography -- are a result of reorganizing, readjusting, or realigning existing knowledge. Mr. Carlson alluded to this when he said: "I certainly added no new scientific knowledge, as did the transistor inventor, for example. I merely combined a set of facts in a new way."

And in what a way! His invention has revolutionized the modern business and educational worlds. His creativity is revealed through his drive to approach his area of knowledge in differing ways. "Perhaps," he said, "I'm less bound by custom or the status quo than most." The combination of ambition, drive, dedication, knowledge, patience, and ability to work alone or without encouragement, fused into one being named Chester F. Carlson, scientist-humanitarian, who became the epitome of the American success story in its finest form.


  1. "The Invention and Development of Xerox Copying," by Chester F. Carlson, the inventor, with Prof. Joseph J. Ermenc. An edited typescript of a tape-recorded interview of Mr. Carlson by Professor Ermenc in New York City December 16, 1965. Hanover, N. H. Dartmouth College, Thayer School of Engineering, 1971.


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