R. Gopalakrishnan, Author and Corporate Advisor, Email : email@example.com
My last anecdote was about how it took fifty years between conception and commercialization of the ball pen, an apparently simple innovation that is basic to our lives now (BS, 3rd March 2017). The article drew a noteworthy response from an IIT contemporary, Professor Anjan Raichaudhuri, who pointed to another innovation with a comparable diffusion time. His hint was that such diffusion times may well be a norm. For this column, I review the development of the dry copier, an essential part of our lives, and whose innovation biography we don’t contemplate.
When I began my professional career in the 1960s, Indian firms deployed ‘Photostat’ machines, a wet technology involving liquid chemicals and ink. The principle of this machine was of photography–an image of the material was placed on a metal stencil and then copies were rolled out by running ink and chemicals over the stencil, much like the letter press printing technology. It was cumbersome and slow. The demand for the machines was serviced by photographic and chemical companies like Eastman Kodak and Haloid Corporation.
The restless and inspiring atmosphere of the Budapest cafes of the 1930s was a spur to creativity, as evidenced by my last story of Laszlo Biro, the inventor of the ball pen. The café culture spurred another innovation. Hungarian Pal Selenyi, used to research at the department of Applied Physics at Budapest University after studying physics and mathematics. Selenyi published a paper in a German journal during the 1930s; in this paper he contemplated dispensing with chemicals and wet processes and proposed that a beam of ions could be used to create a dry image on a rotating drum of insulating material. Thus an idea crystallised out of a concept in his brain–with no disrespect, an obscure idea from an obscure scientist in an obscure journal!
Chester Carlson, 22 years younger than Selenyi, was a prolific innovator, who had been fired from Bell aboratories, New York for “his failed business schemes outside of the company.” Many years after its ublication, Selenyi’s paper gripped the mind of the ever-so-curious Chester Carlson. He promptly hired an out-of-work Austrian physicist, Kornei, to assist him. Carlson is generally considered the inventor of photocopying.
By 1938, Carlson and Kornei had dry-transferred some lettering from one surface to another: and this was the first prototype of dry copier technology, which rules our lives today. Chester Carlson got a patent by 1942, but it took another three years for Battelle Memorial Institute to give Carlson could some funding.
The leading wet copier company of the times was Haloid Corporation. Its CEO, Joseph Wilson, was initially reluctant, but was persuaded to commercialize the dry copier invention. Spurred by a $100,000 technology grant from the US Army, Haloid secured an inner track to the further product development through an exclusive license for the invention.
A branding exercise of sorts combined two Greek words to launch a new terminology, xerography: xeros (dry) and graphein (writing). When Haloid directors voted to adopt the term, xerography, the company’s legal department wanted to patent the word. John Hartnett, an advertising executive, prevailed upon the legal department to avoid patenting the word by saying, “We want people to say the word, Xerox.” In due course, the Haloid Corporation renamed itself Xerox Corporation.
In 1961, about thirty years after Selenyi’s paper, the Xerox 914 was shipped out to customers for the first time. For over half a century now, we have not paused to recall Chester Carlson or Pal Selenyi. So much for the footprints innovators leave on the sands of time! So much for ball pens and dry copiers. Is there any research on the time lag from concept to commercialization, apart from these two examples? More in the next column.
Meanwhile another IIT contemporary from East Coast America, Gautam Gupta, wrote about the apparent contradiction between such long diffusion time and the quick effect of ‘technology-led innovations’ like Amazon and Facebook. It seems to provide a counter narrative, which also I propose to explore in a future column.