Carlson’s invention is the method by which most of the world’s printed documents we see in offices are created today.
Xerography is the technological foundation of copiers, laser printers and digital production printers. It is used to create credit card statements, personalised direct mailings, instant books and posters as well as countless memos, receipts, records and much more.
Carlson biographer David Owen estimates that in 2004, there were about four trillion pages printed on products made possible by Carlson’s invention of xerography. Though Carlson died in 1968 at age 62, his passion for creativity and exploration has lived on through generations of Xerox researchers and continued investments in innovation.
As a boy, Carlson suffered such wretched poverty that his family lived for a time in a decaying shed. Socially isolated by the poverty, he developed a singular way of way of looking at things. By the time he was 12, he determined that the best way to escape his situation was to invent something.
After obtaining a degree in physics and a sizeable debt, he found work as an assistant to a patent attorney, a paper intensive job where he saw first hand the need for a simple, convenient method of making copies.
Carlson began experimenting with electrostatic charges and materials that were photoconductive - their electrical properties changed when exposed to light. In 1938, when he was just 32, he created the first xerographic image. The process took its name from the Greek words for "dry" and "writing”.
It took another two decades and a bet-your-company investment by a small upstate New York firm named The Haloid Company - which became Xerox Corporation in 1961 - before people could use Carlson’s process to make black and white copies simply, quickly and on plain paper. The product was the Xerox 914 automatic plain-paper office copier, which Fortune magazine called "the most successful product ever marketed in America”.
By the time Carlson died, his vision was fulfilled and Xerox was well on its way to success as the world’s foremost expert on colour imaging, printing, document management and related services, generating billions in annual revenue. Carlson was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1981.
"Besides being an inventor, Chester Carlson was dedicated to helping others. Before he died, he had given away over $100m to various charitable organisations," says daughter Catherine Carlson.
Moreover, his invention changed forever the way people worked. "It gave ordinary people an extraordinary way of preserving and sharing information, and it placed the rapid exchange of complicated ideas within the reach of almost everyone," writes Owen in his 2004 book, Copies in Seconds.