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.