Sep 162016


The Xerox 914 was the first successful commercial plain paper copier which in 1959 revolutionized the document-copying industry. The copier was introduced to the public on this date in 1959, in a demonstration at the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York, shown on live television. Not only did the 914 revolutionize copying, it also made the fortune of the Xerox corporation that had been struggling up to that point. For decades “Xerox” was synonymous with “photocopy” (to the chagrin of competitors), just as “Kleenex” was synonymous with “paper handkerchief” for a long time.

Xerography or electrophotography had been around for some time, as had been the original Xerox corporation. Xerox was founded in 1906 in Rochester, New York, as The Haloid Photographic Company, which originally manufactured photographic paper and equipment. The basic principal of xerography was proposed in the 1920s by Hungarian physicist and engineer Pál Selényi who published a number of papers on the theory of transmitting and printing facsimiles of printed images using a beam of charged ions directed on to a rotating drum of insulating material. The ions would create an electrostatic charge on the drum. A fine powder could then be dusted upon the drum and the powder would stick to the parts of the drum that were charged. Theory and practice are not the same.


Chester Carlson was the man who turned the theory into practice. There is no question that Carlson was an inspired loony (my favorite kind of person). He wrote:

I had a fascination with the graphic arts from childhood. One of the first things I wanted was a typewriter—even when I was in grammar school. Then, when I was in high school I liked chemistry and I got the idea of publishing a little magazine for amateur chemists. I also worked for a printer in my spare time and he sold me an old printing press which he had discarded. I paid for it by working for him. Then I started out to set my own type and print this little paper. I don’t think I printed more than two issues, and they weren’t much. However, this experience did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes. I started a little inventor’s notebook and I would jot down ideas from time to time.

The need for a quick, satisfactory copying machine that could be used right in the office seemed very apparent to me—there seemed such a crying need for it—such a desirable thing if it could be obtained. So I set out to think of how one could be made.

Carlson bounced around a lot, but in the late 1920s wound up in the patent department of Bell Labs working for their patent attorney. The need for a quick and efficient method of making copies was obvious. Secretaries either used carbon paper or mimeograph machines. In both cases You had to retype your original before you could make copies. Wouldn’t it be grand if you could just stick your original in a machine and have it spit out copies?


Carlson was fired from Bell in 1933 for running an illegal business outside of office hours. After that he started at law school but spent spare time at New York Public Library’s science and technology department. It was there that he was inspired by a brief article, written by Pál Selényi in an obscure German scientific journal, that showed him a way to construct a copier. Carlson’s early experiments, conducted in his apartment kitchen, were smoky, smelly, and occasionally explosive. In one set of experiments, he was melting pure crystalline sulfur (a photoconductor) on to a plate of zinc by moving it gently over the flame of his kitchen stove. This resulted in a sulfur fire, filling the building with the smell of rotten eggs (sulfur dioxide). This was not the only kitchen fire. By the autumn of 1938, Carlson’s wife had convinced him that his experiments needed to be conducted elsewhere. He rented a room on the second floor of a house owned by his mother-in-law at 32-05 37th Street in Astoria, Queens. He hired an assistant, Otto Kornei, an out-of-work Austrian physicist.

Carlson knew that several major corporations were researching ways of copying paper. The Haloid Company (Xerox) had the Photostat, which it licensed to Eastman Kodak, the photography giant. However, these companies were researching along photographic lines, and their solutions required special chemicals and papers. The Photostat, for instance, was essentially a photograph of the document being copied.


Eventually Carlson applied for and was awarded U.S. Patent 2,297,691 on October 6, 1942. The technique was originally called electrophotography. It was later renamed xerography—from the Greek roots ξηρός xeros, “dry” and -γραφία -graphia, “writing”—to emphasize that, unlike reproduction techniques then in use such as cyanotype, this process used no liquid chemicals. Here’s his first successful photocopy:


Carlson’s original process was cumbersome, requiring several manual processing steps with flat plates. It was almost 18 years before a fully automated process was developed, the key breakthrough being use of a cylindrical drum coated with selenium instead of a flat plate. Carlson entered into a research agreement with the Battelle Memorial Institute in 1944, when he and Kornei produced the first operable copy machine. He sold his rights in 1947 to the Haloid Company.

Haloid introduced the first commercial xerographic copier, the Xerox Model A, in 1949. The company had, the previous year, announced the refined development of xerography in collaboration with Battelle Their machine was generally known as the Ox Box. An improved version, Camera #1, was introduced in 1950. Haloid was renamed Haloid Xerox in 1958, and, in 1959 the 914 was introduced and became an instant success. The 914 was hailed as the critical breakthrough because it was relatively affordable and easy to use. Thus it caught on in offices throughout the world, launching Xerox as a major profitable company, having been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for decades.


The 914 was so named because it could copy originals up to 9 inches by 14 inches (229 mm × 356 mm), and was capable of making 100,000 copies per month (seven copies per minute). The 914 was very useful, but not without its problems. For one thing the machine was mechanically complex. It required a large technical support force because it broke down all the time. Therefore, it was not practical for small offices, including those in schools, churches, and so forth. As a new school teacher in 1973 I was used mimeograph machines for large numbers of copies, and continued using them (and wet chemical copiers) into the late 1970s.

The 914 also had a tendency to catch fire when overheated (Ralph Nader claimed that a model in his office had caught fire three times in a four-month period). Because of the problem, the Xerox company provided a “scorch eliminator,” which was actually a small fire extinguisher, along with the copier. I once amused the office at my university when I was doing a large batch of copies on a 914, and one copy came out of the machine in flames. Despite its problems, the machine was regarded with affection by its technical staff, due to it being complex enough to be interesting to use, but without being so complex as to be beyond understanding. Regular office staff were usually not so forgiving. The pricing structure of the machine was designed to encourage customers to rent rather than buy – it could be rented in 1965 for $25 a month, but would cost $27,500 to buy. The 914 was a significant component of Xerox’s revenues in the mid-1960s, with one author estimating that the machine accounted for two thirds of the company’s revenue in 1965, with income generated of $243M.  The machine was produced between 1960 and 1977.


With the growth of the company due to sales of the 914, Xerox labs was greatly expanded and was responsible for producing a raft of technologies, all of which it sold off to others, especially in the field of computing. Xerox invented many design elements to make personal computing more user friendly such as the Graphic User Interface, the desktop, and the mouse, which it sold to Apple, which, in turn, became a giant in the field – eventually emulated by Microsoft. Xerox also invented the prototype of the fax machine (two copiers connected by telephone lines), and the Ethernet. It was not that the business directors at Xerox failed to see the commercial potential of these products, rather that the company was not interested in diversifying into computing at that stage.

Xerox has production facilities in many locations, including its major factory in Rochester, New York, where the old Haloid Company was founded. But its world headquarters are located in Norwalk, Connecticut. Norwalk is not exactly a foodie paradise, but on the weekend after Labor Day it holds a major oyster festival. To honor Xerox and the inflammable 914, therefore, I thought I’d give you grilled oysters.


To be honest, I’ll take a dozen (or two dozen) oysters on the half shell just about any day of the week before I’ll eat them cooked, but I’ve had them grilled in New Orleans and they made a change. The secret is to have a good smoky fire and a tight cover so that they smoke as they cook. You’ll also need to decide what seasonings you want to add.  There are abundant choices. Here’s the steps:

  1. Prepare your seasonings ahead of time. Herb butter is common. Pulse together in your food processor, cold salted butter, parsley, garlic, and lemon juice. For an Asian taste use hoisin sauce, fresh ginger, garlic, ricewine, and dark soy sauce. (This is my favorite). You can prepare your seasonings a day ahead.
  2. Prepare hot coals in your grill, and make them smoke with dampened wood placed on top once they are well hot and glowing.
  3. Scrub your oysters well, making sure they are tightly closed, or close when tapped. Remove any beards and loose material. Keep them in a bucket of cold salted water by the grill until it is ready.
  4. Place the oysters, curved side down on the grill and cover tightly.
  5. After a minute or two check under the cover. The oysters will start to open. As they do, using heavy, fire-proof gloves, take the oysters off the grill and remove the top shell. Add a spoonful of seasoning to each oyster, put them back on the grill and cover. Let them grill for another 2 minutes or so. You don’t want them overcooked because they will get tough. You just want the juices and seasonings to be bubbly.
  6. Serve straight from the grill piping hot, as is, or with a garden salad and crusty bread.