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How the office copying machine influenced civilization

In 1958, International Business Machines Corp. asked Arthur D. Little, the prestigious Boston consulting firm, to look into the commercial potential of an office copying machine, the Model 914. The copier was then under development by Haloid Xerox, a little-known company in Rochester, N.Y.

It appeared that the 914 might do what no other machine could do. If it worked as intended, it would produce hassle-free copies on plain paper at the press of a button.

But Arthur D. Little concluded that the 914's projected $2,000-per-machine cost would doom it as a mass-market product. According to the reasoning at the time, the copier would appeal only to a company that made as many as 100 copies a day, a number that then seemed absurdly high. The 914 "has no future in the office copying market," the consultants informed IBM, which was considering a joint venture with Haloid Xerox. Snubbed by IBM, Haloid Xerox pressed ahead without the benefit of a deep-pocketed partner. When the copier hit the market in March 1960, it was a runaway success. Haloid Xerox dropped the first half of its name in 1961, underscoring its astonishing triumph in the then-emerging field of xerography (from the Greek words xeros, meaning "dry," and graphein, meaning "writing.")

The advent of the modern copying machine marked "an epochal event in the history of communication and, therefore, in the history of civilization," writes David Owen in his absorbing "Copies in Seconds." Owen, a New Yorker magazine writer and author of 10 other books, offers that bit of philosophic musing in a book that delivers on many levels.

"Copies in Seconds" is, first, a brisk history of the Xerox copying machine and the whole range of document-reproduction technologies that came before it, not the least carbon paper. Owen weaves into his narrative a vivid portrait of Chester Carlson, the man who invented the Xerox copier.

As a story of sheer human perseverance in the face of incredibly long odds, the yarn that Owen spins is tough to match in the annals of American business.

Carlson's boyhood was one of extreme loneliness and privation. For a while he and his chronically ill father lived in a former chicken coop. By dint of hard work and extraordinary personal sacrifice, he put himself through the California Institute of Technology and law school and found work as a patent attorney. All the copying that the job demanded gave him writer's cramp. Surely, there had to be a better way.

His brainstorm was to envision that exposing a photoconductor to electrostatic charges offered a breakthrough in copying technology. Carlson hustled to apply for a patent, which he did in 1937.

To develop a commercially viable model posed Herculean technical problems that required the help of a small army of scientists and engineers to solve. By and by, Carlson hooked up with a nonprofit research and development lab, the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, and to Haloid Xerox, whose leaders became as obsessed with the project as the inventor.

Owen captures the highs and lows of the engineering and entrepreneurial drama even as he debunks a few business-management shibboleths along the way.

A company's strategy ought to remain customer-driven? The Arthur D. Little report that Haloid Xerox disregarded had relied on a survey of customers' needs.

Good communications skills and a take-charge manner are crucial to entrepreneurial leadership? Haloid Xerox's chief executive, Joe Wilson, was "not physically commanding, or tall, or particularly good-looking. He was not a stirring public speaker. His voice was not powerful," Owen writes. But Wilson knew all his workers by name and his "unpretentiousness, self-assurance, and evident guilelessness" were inspiring, Owen adds. Wilson's management style proved to be highly effective.

An entrepreneur should have a sunny, optimistic personality? The taciturn Carlson had something else going for him: resilience forged by a hardscrabble life. What allowed him to stay the course through decades of frustration, Owen notes, was "his persistence, his imperviousness to repeated rejection, his emotional self-reliance, his tolerance for solitude, his independence of mind."

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