Archive for October, 2013

Oct
06

Chester Carlson and the Xerox Story: Do Great Inventors Really Have to Die Early and Lonely?

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The photocopier, one of the most valuable inventions in the modern world, began with the all-consuming passion of one man, Chester Carlson, who sacrificed almost everything he had for years to realize his dream of “dry printing” using electrostatic means. In the end, he became wealthy and successful, but the years of effort required should be noted by all seeking to launch a major new invention. One of the most important lessons in his story is that he obtained a valid and valuable patent, otherwise companies could have taken his idea and left him behind. You cannot neglect IP if you are an inventor.

Chester’s path to invention and innovation began in poverty at age 13, working as a printer’s assistant. It was there that he began thinking about better ways to print. He went on to graduate from Cal Tech and then, still at the edge of poverty, dedicated his spare time to tinkering in his kitchen, looking for ways to pint without wet inks, taking advantage of the potential he saw with static electricity as a tool for moving dry particles onto paper.

Chester’s story is told well in the Engines of Our Ingenuity radio program series by John Lienhard at the University of Houston. Here is an excerpt:

Carlson patented a copying process in 1937, before he’d really figured out how to make it work. Author Dean Golembeski tells us that he hired a German refugee named Otto Kornei to help him. Working on a budget of 10 dollars a month, they finally managed to reproduce an inked message by electrostatic means. Kornei saw little future in the process, so he went on to a regular job. Carlson spent the next six years looking for corporate backing.

Battelle finally bought into his patent, and Carlson vanished into the work of developing the process. First his marriage fell apart. Then Battelle gave up on the process. Finally, a little company called Haloid bought the patent rights and hired Carlson.

Haloid turned to a Greek scholar for help in naming the process. Since it didn’t use any photographic liquids, he suggested that they base the name on the Greek word for dry — xeros. He suggested that they call it “Xerography.” That word was simplified to “Xerox,” and Carlson’s dream was finally on its way. It took another 13 years to produce the first really successful Xerox machine, but then Carlson was suddenly worth 150 million dollars.

Endless toil, an all-consuming passion, years of sacrifice, then an invention, a patent, and years more of work to obtain corporate investment and eventually commercialize the process–this was what it took for Carlson to achieve success and wealth. And then he dropped dead at age 62, a lonely man. Was it worth it?

Frankly, one thing that passionate inventors often need is a touch of balance in their lives, with more attention to family and personal growth. Chester’s zealous focus appears to have cost him his marriage and perhaps his health. Sometimes that kind of balance gives people insights and connections that help them bypass some of the fruitless decades of futile meandering that occurs in many inventor’s lives and more directly realize their goal. It also gives them longevity. High stress for decades to realize your passion, only to be promptly terminated with an early heart attack, is too common a pattern in “successful” business leaders and innovators. Again, with balance, more complete and meaningful success may be realized and enjoyed for much longer. Don’t overdo it, inventors! Slow down, pay attention to your family and your health, and open channels of creative inspiration to realize you dream more efficiently.

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