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Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg--Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine Hardcover – Deckle Edge, August 3, 2004

4.6 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

This history of the Xerox copier starts with its inventor, a Caltech graduate named Chester Carlson, who in 1938 made the first xerographic reproduction—a piece of waxed paper that read "10-22-38 Astoria." Xerography was difficult to perfect, requiring a coordinated ballet of paper-handling and electric charge, and it was more than twenty years before the first commercial copier, Model 914, went into production. An ungainly machine, it imparted electric shocks and used rabbit fur as a key part, but it solved a centuries-old problem—making document reproduction possible without a roomful of monks or a collection of foul-smelling chemicals. One-touch copying (and its evil twin, the paper jam) was born. Owen has a knack for explaining technical innovations in layman's terms, and he vividly conveys the magnitude of Xerox's coup: in 1961, when a television ad showed a young girl making copies, a competitor demanded proof that she was not a midget.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (August 3, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0743251172
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743251174
  • Product Dimensions: 5.6 x 1 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,327,912 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard W. Detrick on August 6, 2005
Format: Paperback
This book gives an excellent account of the processes and hurdles needed to bring a complex product to the marketplace. It will be especially enjoyable for anyone who was involved in the copying/duplicating business during the 60's and 70's.

The author mentions many of the early companies -- and many of the current companies -- that are significant "players" in this business. Also, many of the key inventors who are known only as "publication or patent names" are given life by the author. The reader can get behing the scenes and see the victories, struggles, and tensions facing the researchers and their companies.

This book is a good read -- difficult to put down -- especially for those in corporate research and development.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I've always enjoyed David Owen's writing in the New Yorker and Golf Digest, and I read Green Metropolis in the hardcover. When I got my Kindle back in 2009, this was one of the first books I bought, but I kept putting off reading it until the last month. It is such an enjoyable book! Mr. Owen has constructed a modern masterpiece of research and style. He perfectly captures the challenges of inventions and the types of people who will pursue them against all odds and in difficult conditions. Each character is expertly and endearingly portrayed. But even the best writer needs a great topic to write a really great book, and this one is timeless. It is hard to imagine what the world would be like without copiers, but I lived it for a few years volunteering in Africa, searching for the few precious pieces of worn carbon paper so I could fill out my psychiatric referrals in triplicate (once while a naked, psychotic man tried to throw his fresh feces at me through the screen of the police van). I find myself wishing I was there with Mr. Owen as he interviewed the people and viewed their demonstrations. He is always good company and seems to bring out the very best in the people and topics he investigates.
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Format: Hardcover
Copies in Seconds is fine account of the invention of the photocopier and, to a more limited extent, the story of how that invention changed the world. Owen well communicates the seemingly impossible odds against which Chester Carlson struggled, especially a youth spent in grinding poverty. Owen has an eye for detail that makes his characters live and an ear for words that rarely misses the mark. He provides both a good introduction to copying before xerography and a stimulating essay on his sources. The illustrations are well chosen, and full captions serve as an outline of his story.

Nevertheless, Owen's journalistic background sometimes works against him, as for instance, when he introduces an interview-demonstration straight into the text. What would be perfectly appropriate for a New Yorker essay sounds strained here. It would have been better to have replaced it with some David Macaulay-style graphics to aid the reader in understanding the technical aspects of early Xerox copiers. Also, I should hope that other books of this quality do not omit citations as Owen's does.

These are quibbles. Copies in Seconds is an excellent book, the sort that may tempt you to sneak away from your responsibilities to finish.
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Format: Paperback
I was fascinated by this book! The subject matter is intriguing on its own, and it's been beautifully enhanced by the presentation. Author knew exactly how to tell the story for best effect--when to give a history lesson, when to introduce characters, and just how much of each was appropriate. Also explained the complicated science behind xerography (the generic term for what a Xerox machine does) in a way a layman can understand. Extremely well done. I'm glad I happened across this book!
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Format: Hardcover
I am old enough to remember trying to do library research before Xerox. Taking notes longhand, especially with my nearly illegible handwriting, was a chore that I really hated. When xeroxing came along, my life was made a little bit better--I could walk out of the library with something I could at least read and file, even if I didn't always get around to it. I still have several file cabinets of the stuff that I can't bear to throw away.

Mr. Owen has provided a very nice account of how the xerox machine was invented and developed into the indispensable tool we all know today, and a biography of the fascinating man who had the vision to see it through. Some parts of the story are pretty well known by those interested at all in the history of technology, but Owen provides lots of unique material that I've not seen elsewhere. This is not one of those business books that tries to derive "lessons" from xerox's missteps in its later years, but rather focusses on the genesis of the invention, up to the early years after the release of the model 914.

I was most intrigued by the struggle Carlson went through to get any industrial organization to help in the development of the machine--IBM and others really dropped the ball on this one! In the early years, the opinion of the "technical experts" was nearly one of universal dismissal. Later, when development was well underway, the marketing consultants also failed to predict even to an order of magnitude how many copies would be produced at the average business site. The lesson is, if you have something really unique, forget about polls and market research.

There were lots of interesting anecdotes for the author to have some fun with, and he does it very well.
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