"I know that he always was surprised by the success — he never dreamed it would be as big as it was," said Hal Bogdonoff, who worked for two years in the 1950s as Carlson's lab manager in Haloid-provided space on Hollenbeck Street in Rochester's 14621 neighborhood. "He said that he was looking for a process to enable people to do copying easier than he'd suffered with when he was the patent attorney and had to hand-copy materials at the library. I don't think he ever visualized the mechanical embodiment and the success it would ultimately reach," said Bogdonoff, now a resident of West Palm Beach, Fla.
Carlson's work grew out of research he read about in the niche field of photoconductivity.
"There was no prior art for him to work off of," said Ray Brewer, company archivist for Xerox Corp., the company that Carlson essentially built with his discovery of electrophotography or, as some call it, "xerography," from the Greek words for "dry writing." Xerox — then known as Haloid, and based in Rochester — in 1947 acquired the rights to develop a xerographic machine.
"There was no 'Eureka' moment" in Carlson's work, Brewer said. "It was just hard work and research he did. He just stayed with it. He was very persistent. He went through a lot of chemical compounds, different types of powders. He had the general idea of how it was supposed to work, but he didn't know how to get there."
Today, electrophotography is a staple of modern business life. And Carlson's discovery is indirectly a major part of the fabric of the Rochester region, from the roughly 6,400 Xerox employees locally to the Chester Carlson Center for Imaging Science at Rochester Institute of Technology, the Carlson Science and Engineering Library at the University of Rochester and the Carlson MetroCenter YMCA in downtown Rochester.
The path between that Astoria apartment and success was a long one. Between 1939 and 1944, he pitched the technology to more than 20 companies and received more than 20 variations on "not interested." And Rochester-based Haloid's breakthrough product, the 914 copier, didn't come out until 1959.
Today, xerography is not the centerpiece of Xerox that it once was. Fifty five cents of every dollar Xerox takes in comes now from business process outsourcing services — from running call centers and computer servers to processing such transactions as insurance claims and debit-card swipes. Its traditional printing technology business — making, servicing and supplying office equipment and big digital printing presses — is struggling with declining sales.
"We actually asked ourselves that question, whether or not we wanted to put forth the effort to make a big deal (about the 75th anniversary) because we're not the same company we once were," said Renee Heiser, vice president of Xerox corporate and employee communications and chairwoman of the anniversary activities. "We made the decision to say this is an important date and it's beyond just the invention of xerography. It's about celebrating the company and our history as well as where we're going."
For the 75th anniversary, Xerox is planning a multimedia program that it will roll out over the course of the coming year "to generate excitement and pride and to reinforce our company purpose with our employees around the globe," Heiser said. "I want our people in Grenoble (France) or Chile to see a little bit of Chester in what they do."