The Guy Who Inventer Copying Machines Couldn’t Sell Water to a Drowning Man

Chester Carlson invented Xerography. As in Xerox machines/copiers. They aren’t the sexiest of inventions, but trillions of copies are made a year for a good reason. The modern world couldn’t exist without them.

Yet, between 1938 and 1944, over 20 groups turned down his invention, saying they just didn’t get it, including IBM and the US Navy. He finally lucked his way into finding a small company in Rochester NY that was interested, and what would become Xerox was born.

The invention was so out of the blue and unique at its time (most attempts at copying were using chemical photography) that if Carlson was just a little less lucky, his crappy salesmanship could’ve made modern offices continue using hand-copying for decades.

“Electrophotography had practically no foundation in previous scientific work. Chet put together a rather odd lot of phenomena, each of which was obscure in itself and none of which had previously been related in anyone’s thinking. The result was the biggest thing in imaging since the coming of photography itself. Furthermore, he did it entirely without the help of a favorable scientific climate. There are dozens of instances of simultaneous discovery down through scientific history, but no one came anywhere near being simultaneous with Chet. I’m as amazed by his discovery now as I was when I first heard of it.”
— Dr. Harold E. Clark, Battelle Memorial Institute, New Yorker, 1967

The road to Carlson’s success—or that for xerography’s success—had been long and filled with failure. He was turned down for funding by more than twenty companies between 1939 and 1944. He tried for some time to sell the invention to International Business Machines (IBM), the great vendor of office equipment, but no one at the company saw merit in the concept—it is not clear that anyone at IBM even ‘understood’ the concept. His next-to-last attempt to garner the interest—and funds—he needed to commercialize the physics was a meeting with the Department of the Navy. The Navy had a specific interest in the production of dry copies, but they did not “see” what Carlson saw.

Carlson obtained the first of many patents for the xerographic process and tried unsuccessfully to interest someone in developing and marketing his invention. More than 20 companies turned him down. Finally, in 1944, he persuaded Battelle Memorial Institute, Columbus, Ohio, a nonprofit industrial research organization, to undertake developmental work. In 1947 a small firm in Rochester, N.Y., the Haloid Company (later the Xerox Corporation), obtained the commercial rights to xerography, and 11 years later Xerox introduced its first office copier.

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