In a primitive form, electronic television was already 10 years old by the time Chester Carlson patented the graphic reproduction technology that would become known as Xerography. On June 21, the two world-changing wonders caught up with each other in a televised tribute to Carlson that formed part of a program titled The Vision Thing.

Here’s a preview. For graphic communication buffs, viewing the whole episode will be well worth the time spent. An installment of the Smithsonian series My Million Dollar Invention, The Vision Thing profiles Carlson and three other inventors in whose company he indisputably belongs: Philo Taylor Farnsworth, the farm boy who gave the world television; Maurice Gatsonides, the race car driver who developed the speed camera; and Lyman Spitzer, the father of the Hubble Space Telescope.

This writer says Carlson and his invention stand head and shoulders above the rest, but I’m not entirely objective: I write about xerographic technology, in one way or another, nearly every day; and I’m located in Queens, NY, not far from where Carlson exposed the first such image on October 22, 1938. Personal biases apart, though, it’s wonderful to see him brought to the attention of a mass audience who know his invention at least as well as they know the medium that’s broadcasting the show.

Electrophotography—Carlson’s name for the process before the term “xerography” with a lower-case initial “x” was coined—needs no technical explanation to the readers of WhatTheyThink. As The Vision Thing dramatizes, his genius lay in seeing it as a path to graphic reproduction where nobody else had thought of looking for one. What may not be as widely known is the difficulty that Carlson and his corporate partners faced in monetizing the miracle of reproducing text and images without litho or letterpress plates, type, ink, or chemistry—a breakthrough that, like other game-changing advances in the graphic arts, took time for the industry to digest and appreciate.

Carlson’s quest for xerography began early in a life that brought him illness, struggle, and many setbacks before it rewarded him with success. As the teenaged owner of a second-hand printing press, he produced two issues of a magazine for amateur chemists that went nowhere as a publication but pointed the greater way to his life’s work. The experience, he was to recall. “did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy, and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes.”

As a clerk in a patent office (a position also on the résumé of Albert Einstein), Carlson found what he was looking for in the then little-explored science of photoconductivity. Having applied on October 18, 1937 for the first of 28 xerographic patents he would base upon photoconductive techniques, the inventor undertook a series of experiments that he began in the kitchen of his Astoria, Queens home and later transferred to a makeshift lab over a neighborhood bar and grill.

There, he and an assistant placed a glass microscope slide marked “10-22-38 ASTORIA” in India ink onto a zinc plate coated with sulfur. Rubbing the plate beforehand with a silk handkerchief had given its surface an electrostatic charge. Next came illuminating the slide and plate under a bright lamp and sprinkling lycopodium powder (toner to us today) onto the exposed plate surface. After Carlson blew away the excess powder, the particles clinging to the latent image created by the light formed the world’s first electrophotographic image.

Carlson built a demo apparatus that could transfer images created in this way onto paper. Now there was a method for bringing graphic reproduction directly into offices and wherever else copies were needed—but who at the time cared? Between 1939 and 1944, 20 companies turned the concept down. It wasn’t until Carlson signed a royalty-sharing agreement with the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit research organization, that electrophotography began to gain traction as the practical solution its inventor had envisioned.

Battelle made technical improvements to the process, rechristened it xerography (from the Greek words for “dry” and “writing”), and found a developmental partner for it in Haloid, a small photographic paper company based in Rochester, NY. Haloid introduced the first “XeroX Copier,” with each x uppercased, in 1949.

The technology remained a hard sell until 1955 when Haloid enjoyed its first genuine commercial success with a platform called Copyflo, a fully automated xerographic machine in which a continuous belt replaced plates as the photoconductive surface. In 1960, the company—doing business as Haloid Xerox since 1958—shipped the first of its bestselling 914 copiers as the opening chapter of a success story in document reproduction systems that continues to this day.

Haloid Xerox became Xerox in 1961, and Carlson, over time, became rich—so much so that he was able to donate $100 million to foundations and charities before his death on September 19, 1968. But, his gift to the graphic communications industry and society at large went right on giving.

Electrophotographic systems, which continued to improve through advances made by Xerox and other technology suppliers, learned to image with lasers, print in color, and output variable data. Carlson’s invention gave graphic reproduction an entirely new dimension by rewriting rules about where printing could by done, when, by whom, in what quantities, and at what cost.

“Revolutionary” is a way of saying that something once deemed impossible is now taken so completely for granted that doing without it is impossible to imagine. Try to think of living in a world without the indispensable convenience of hard copy on demand. It can’t be done—that’s the short version of the revolutionary legacy of Chester Carlson. His recognition in the popular media is long overdue. We hope that The Vision Thing will start to turn his story into the celebration of genius and courage it so richly represents.

(Thanks to Text100 for providing background material on Carlson quoted in the post.)