Makin' Copies: Chester Carlson's Xerox is 50, Office Space Lives
Xerox is celebrating a half-century of "makin' copies" and frustrating office workers everywhere.
Since its debut 50 years ago, the Xerox photocopier has revolutionized office work, allowing instant reproduction of paper documents at the press of a button.
It's hard to imagine now, because we take it so much for granted. But it took human communication forward a huge step," said David Owen, author of Copies in Seconds: Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine. “It was a product no one knew they needed until they had it.
At the same time, it’s been a burden to workers every time paper gets stuck. Early machines required regular repairs and some occasionally caught fire.
The 50-Year History of Xerox
The Xerox was invented by Chester Carlson, a patent lawyer who was unable to sell the product to such companies as Kodak and IBM when it was still in development. He managed to convince the Haloid company to partner in the project.
A team of engineers worked on the copier in the mid-‘50s, making and remaking machines that always had flaws. The company was running out of money for the project and critics had already dismissed the value of a photocopier.
They all thought we were crazy,” said Horace Becker, now 86, a mechanical engineer who worked for Haloid Xerox. “We were spending money we didn't have on a product nobody wanted.
In 1959, after several years and Carlson’s lost marriage, a reliable prototype of the Xerox was made, changing office work forever.
In March 1960, a customer of Rochester-based Haloid Xerox received the first photocopier, which weighed 648 pounds and was the size of 2 washing machines. It cost $2,000 to produce—more than any corporation would pay for—so the company leased them at $95 per month.
Customers were given 2,000 free copies and the company earned 5 cents per copy after, which added up as many corporations put their copiers to work. By 1962, Haloid Xerox’s annual revenues had more than tripled from $32 million in 1959.
With the success of the machine, Haloid Xerox became Xerox in 1961 and was later added as a verb in many dictionaries.
Xerox in Popular Culture
Mike Judge’s 1999 comedy Office Space perhaps best showed photocopier frustration. After getting fed up with a paper-jam prone Xerox, 3 workers bring it to a field and take turns beating it with a baseball bat.
During his 4-year stint on Saturday Night Live, Rob Schneider played a recurring character named Richard “The Richmeister” Laymer, an office worker whose desk is near the photocopier. Every time a co-worker had to use the machine, he’d address them with a lengthy series of annoying nicknames and throw in his catchphrase, “Makin’ copies!”
In Mad Men, a show about Madison Avenue advertising agencies set in the 1960s, the secretaries marvel over the new machine.