Image courtesy Xerox Historical Archives
The most unsung birthday in American business and technological history this year may be the 50th anniversary of the Xerox 914 photocopier. Although it was introduced at New York’s Sherry-Netherland Hotel on September 16, 1959, commercial models were not available until March 1960. The first machine, delivered to a Pennsylvania metal-fastener maker, weighed nearly 650 pounds. It needed a carpenter to uncrate it, an employee with “key operator” training, and its own 20-amp circuit. In an episode of Mad Men, set in 1962, the arrival of the hulking 914 helps get Peggy Olson her own office, after she tells her boss, “It’s hard to do business and be credible when I’m sharing with a Xerox machine.”
The struggles, obstacles, and ultimate triumph of its principal inventor, Chester Carlson— beginning with his frustrations as a patent analyst in the late 1930s—seem ripped from a Frank Capra film. Few people thought a market existed for the machines, which went on to become ubiquitous. In fact, the 914’s 17-year production run, which ended in 1976, was Methuselahian compared with today’s technology product cycles. No wonder Fortune later called the 914 “the most successful product ever marketed in America measured by return on investment.” Yet David Owen, the author of the well-received 2004 book Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine, was not asked for any interviews to commemorate the anniversary—and both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal ignored the milestone.