New Yorker staff writer Owen (The Making of the Masters, 1999, etc.) fluidly recounts the story of the “most successful product ever marketed in America.”
That’s according to Forbes, but Owen’s lapidary prose is far more pleasurable than that magazine’s breathless pages. Whether he’s explaining the rudiments of home improvement (The Walls Around Us, 1991) or the evolution of the copying machine, he makes the unlikeliest suspects into appealing tales. The action this time centers on Chester Carlson, son of grinding poverty and the visionary behind the photocopier, a nonintuitive idea if there ever was one. Though Owen makes it clear that there were a good handful of individuals who lent critical insights to the project, Carlson’s perseverance was particularly remarkable. Time and again, his invention was on the brink of oblivion, time and again he managed to secure funding or find a niche that the machine (ever in the process of refinement) could fill to sustain the work in progress. Along the way, Owen rolls out the evolution of the copying process, starting with Sumerian scribes, moving through monks and machines—intaglio, lithography, the hectograph, pantograph, and polygraph (Thomas Jefferson thought this last, an early copier, was indispensable to democracy)—to the critical discoveries of aniline dyes and a sort of proto-carbon paper that helped lead to the first xerographic copy in 1938. But no one wanted to join the young company as a partner in manufacturing, and RCA tried to make an end run around Xerox patents, though it got nowhere. The photocopying process is not a simple thing to understand; photoelectricity, a building block of the copier, is so arcane, for instance, that “Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for having explained it in 1905.” To Owen’s abiding credit, he makes it all intelligible in this rich business history.
Weirdly attention-grabbing. What Witold Rybczynski did for the screwdriver, Owen does for the photocopier. (Photos and illustrations)