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February 22, 2000

A public radio commentary

In the Soviet Union in the 1970s were machines so powerful and so dangerous that they were kept locked and guarded around the clock. The machine: A photocopier.

Its danger, of course, was the spread of information not controlled by the communist regime. The history of this dangerous machine fascinates me because it shows clearly innovation from the beginning of the technology - its invention - to the end - its marketing.

The photcopier began with Chester Carlson in the late 1930s. Carlson became bored while working as an engineer for the telephone company. Thinking patents would be more exciting he eventually took a job with a Patent Attorney, and worked toward a law degree at night. Newly married and needing cash, he decided to - in his own words - "to do the world some good" and "to do some good for himself."

He returned to a fascination from his youth - graphic arts and chemistry - to dream of a small machine that fit in an office and made one copy per second. About his invention he later wrote: "Things [like this] don't come to mind .... all of a sudden .... You have to get your inspiritation from somewhere and usually you get it from reading." Carlson read every patent he could searching for ideas. He learned of electrostatics: things sticking together because of static electrcity. He fiddled with electrostatics and chemicals in his kitchen, but the smells irriated his neigbhors, so he moved to an apartment in Astoria, Queens.

On a fateful day in October of 1938 he coated a metal plate with sulfur power. Took out a glass slide and wrote: the date - ten dash twenty-two dash 38 and the town "Astoria." He pulled down the shade, rubbed the sulfur surface with a hankerchief to create a charge - like shuffling your feet across the carpet so you can shock yourself on the wall. He laid the glass slide with writing against the plate and shined light on it. After removing the glass he spread a dark powder onto the metal plate; then he blew it off, but it stuck where the letters "10-22-38 Astoria" had been. He pressed the plate against a piece of paper making the world's first photocopy. He formed a company - eventually called Xerox - and by 1949 was selling copiers.

But here is where more innovation enters: Marketing innovation. A product's introduction to the marketplace is not the end of innovation but merely the end of the beginning. Now imagine trying to sell a huge expensive and unproven machine. Xerox's goal was to get the machine into a few markets and then grow these until they connected into a national demand for photocopiers. What was the key to creating these local markets?

They realized it was hard to get someone to buy a machine outright, so they developed, in 1959, a pricing system for leasing. For a base monthly fee you got a machine and then paid based on the number of copies you made. The price was low enough, and the contract short enough that even the most reluctant office manager would give it a try. They bet that people would love their product and make copy after copy. They were right. The result: From nearly zero copies in 1959 to 490 million in 1966.

In fact, photocopiers have became so central to our lives, and consume so much time that today you can even buy a book of excerises to do while at the photocopier!

Copyright 2000 William S. Hammack Enterprises