Today in Entrepreneurial History: September 19

On this day in 1968 Chester Carlson [no relation] died.

Chester Floyd Carlson (February 8, 1906 – September 19, 1968) was an American physicist, inventor, and patent attorney born in Seattle, Washington.

He is best known for having invented the process of electrophotography, which produced a dry copy rather than a wet copy, as was produced by the mimeograph process. Carlson’s process was subsequently renamed xerography, a term that literally means “dry writing.”

For more on Chester Carlson, read Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg.

As New Yorker staff writer Owen explains in this fast-paced account of one inventor’s hopes and dreams, the technology of copying is a relatively modern phenomenon. He recounts the history of copying documents from the scribal work of monks to the invention of the printing press and lithography, to the process that eventually resulted in today’s Xerox machine. Owen narrates the life story of the man behind the Xerox machine, Chester Carlson (1906–1968), and his lonely efforts to find a way to reproduce documents. An inventive soul from a young age, Carlson as a teenager sketched out concepts for a trick safety pin, a new type of lipstick and a disposable handkerchief made of soft paper. After he graduated from college, he went to work for Bell Laboratories and continued his inventive ways. When he finally landed on an electrostatic process that would act like both a printing press and a camera, he began to shop the concept around and the Xerox machine was born in the mid-’50s. Owen’s sympathetic portrait of Carlson’s life and the difficulties and rewards inherent in the inventive process provide a window into the birth of one of our most ubiquitous office machines.

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