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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

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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: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #873,902 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

David Owen is a staff writer for The New Yorker and a contributing editor of Golf Digest, and he is the author of a dozen books. He lives in northwest Connecticut with his wife, the writer Ann Hodgman. Learn more at or (if you're a golfer) at

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Anson Cassel Mills on September 27, 2004
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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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Donald B. Siano on October 21, 2004
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By NWJ on August 14, 2004
Format: Hardcover
David Owen captures the soul of Xerox as a start-up. A very enjoyable, fluid and fluent read about something as commonplace (now) as the office copier and the laser printer. Great history of a truly unique American company and its All-American product with important lessons for any company of any size. There's enough fact in this book for you to build your own copier, yet it's done in such a literate and subtle way, you will think you knew how it worked all along.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By John Matlock on November 17, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Looked at in a certain light, communications has hinged on the reproduction of documents. For centuries the only way to get multiple copies of something was to copy them by hand. We have the image of monks in their little cells painstakingly copying books, the Bible mainly. This lead to the whole concept of you don't need to read the Bible, the priest will do it for you - after all, we only have one copy.

The next big invention was from Gutenberg. (This was also the last big invention according to the folk at the Gutenberg museum in Mainz, Germany.) But immediately people began thinking of how to make a quick copy. James Watt in the late 1770's marketed a type of copier. As this book points out in its historical section, various kinds of copiers in various stages of sophistication were invented through the years.

Then came Chester Carlson. He was to spend all of his life working on the copying process. A Cal Tech physics graduate, he learned a big about the effect light had on semi-conductors and from this he spent his life on the process.

Chester Carlson spent years developing, finding a company to work with, then setting up the production of copying machines using his technology.

Although most of the time in this book is spent on Chester Carlson, no less important to the story of the copier is Joseph c. Wilson, the president of Haloid company. He literally bet his company on making this invention work. Needless to say, his company, renamed Xerox, became a success.

Splendid book.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Missouri shopper on August 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I found it hard to put this book down. Owen does a remarkable job of making us live with Carlson the many trials involved in turning an idea into a practical product. Xerox is a much written about corporation but this account is unique, extraordinary, and painstakingly researched. One can only marvel still at Chester Carlson's genius. I was amazed to discover, for instance, that the workings of 2001's whizzy Xerox Docu-Color iGen3 were accurately described in Carlton's second electrophotography patent-which he filed on April 4, 1939. Read this book and you will never look at your copier in quite the same take-it-for-granted way.
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