The Mother of All Invention

How the Xerox 914 gave rise to the Information age

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.

Why no champagne? Although Xerox celebrated the 914 in fall 2009, it wants to move on from hardware-manufacturing alone to being what its Web site calls “a true partner in helping companies better manage information”—that is, a provider of business services, software, and new forms of paperless imaging. The 914 is a classic brand, but not a living one like the Swingline stapler or Bic pen. And although millions still make photocopies, the practice has been in decline.

But the analog 914 is worth remembering in the digital age. Carlson’s creation was the catalyst for lasting changes in our use of information. Start with personalization. Even in the carbon-copy era, Americans and Europeans treated papers differently. European offices had central files, with letters stored in binders, indexed by skilled secretaries. American business pioneered decentralized, multiple sets of files in vertical cabinets. The photocopier helped to fill them, enabling the cheap and efficient spread of information—often with uncontrollable consequences: Daniel Ellsberg used a Los Angeles advertising agency’s machine to duplicate the Pentagon Papers.

Personalization in turn promoted disaggregation: deconstructing and rearranging conventional information units. My own eyes were opened by a fellow graduate student’s announcement in 1970 that he was annotating his own copies of journal articles for his files—a practice few had attempted in the days of malodorous wet-process copiers. Highlighters were introduced in 1962, shortly after the 914’s appearance. Copy shops in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and other college towns began to bring corporate-grade machines to the masses for pennies a page, and individually selected anthologies soon displaced the paperbacks that professors had assigned for a few chapters. The ensuing protests by publishers were a rehearsal for the 21st-century downloading crisis.

The photocopier prompted creation, not just the recombination of others’ ideas. An alternative to the mess of the mimeograph and the expense of the offset master, the Xerox 914 opened a renaissance in self-publishing. The designer Aaron Marcus, a Yale art student in the late 1960s, remembers using an IBM typewriter with proportional spacing and sharp, single-use ribbons to design and produce books of his own. Indeed, the match between Xerox and IBM Selectrics (introduced in 1961, with interchangeable type elements) paved the way for 1980s desktop publishing.

The 914 also had an adverse effect: procrastination. Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, knew one prominent Ivy League scholar of the late ’60s who spent hours each day photocopying journal articles for a book—and never completed it. Our own overwhelming hoards of digital information are the next chapter in that endless story.

For better or worse, we owe much about our information society to a former patent researcher’s bold gamble. And David Owen’s great history? It’s an ebook, but print copies are available on demand—via the electrostatic process introduced by the Xerox 914.