Carlson, Chester Floyd, 1906-1968

Variant names
Birth 1906-02-08
Death 1968-09-19

Biographical notes:

Chester Floyd Carlson (1906-1968) was an American patent attorney who invented xerography in 1938.

From the guide to the Chester F. Carlson papers, 1898-1975, (The New York Public Library. Manuscripts and Archives Division.)

Chester Floyd Carlson (1906-1968) was born in Seattle, WA on February 8, 1906 to Olof and Ellen (maiden name Hawkins) Carlson. The family moved around a lot, mostly as a result of trying to find relief for Carlson's father's tuberculosis. Eventually they settled in San Bernardino, CA. After completing grammar school and high school in the area, Carlson attended Riverside's Junior College for three years, where he studied chemistry. He was then admitted to the California Institute of Technology, from which he graduated with a B.S. in physics in 1930.

Unfortunately, Carlson graduated from Cal Tech in the midst of the Great Depression. He managed to find work as a Research Engineer at Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York City. Bored with his job, he requested a transfer to the company's patent office. After working as an assistant to Bell's patent attorney for two years, he was laid off in 1933. Once again faced with the prospect of trying to find work during the Great Depression, Carlson managed to find a position as a patent attorney at the law firm Austin & Dix. About a year later he left the firm to begin working in the patent department of the electronics firm P. R. Mallory and Company. While working at P. R. Mallory, Carlson began attending night school at the New York Law School, from which he earned his LL.B. in 1939. Carlson continued working at P. R. Mallory, eventually becoming the manager of the patent department.

While in this position, Carlson began seriously thinking about alternative methods for copying paper documents. Although means already existed to duplicate materials, the methods were complicated. He also wanted to avoid the area of photography, as the field was already dominated by the Eastman Kodak Company. Carlson started researching his topic at the New York Public Library, where he read about Paul Selenyi's studies on electrostatic images. Working in his kitchen during his free time, Carlson managed to discover the principles of electrophotography in 1937. Realizing that he needed a lab space to continue his work, Carlson rented out the backroom of a beauty parlor in Astoria. He then hired a German refugee, Otto Kornei, to help with his research. Together they were able to produce the first xerographic image on October 22, 1938, of the following line of text: 10-22-38 ASTORIA.

Carlson filed a patent for his research on April 4, 1939, and began looking for others to invest in his ideas. Finally, in 1844, Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, OH agreed to fund Carlson's research. A year later, Carlson's research was mentioned in Eastman Kodak Company's technical bulletin and caught the eye of Joseph C. Wilson, president of a small photo-paper business, the Haloid Company. In 1947, Carlson and Battelle Memorial Institute entered into an agreement with Haloid, giving the company the right to develop a Xerographic Machine. The $2,500 that Carlson received during the negotiations was the first money he earned based on his idea.

The Haloid Company officially announced the concept of "xerography," meaning "dry writing," on October 22, 1948, at the Optical Society of America's annual meeting in Detroit, MI. Carlson was soon brought in as a consultant to Haloid and moved to the company's home base in Rochester, NY. The company managed to produce a Model A xerography machine in 1949, though the device proved difficult to operate. It was not until 1959 that the first successful xerography machine was introduced, the Xerox 914. The Haloid Company changed its name to Xerox Corporation on April 18, 1961 to highlight its new focus on xerographic products and services.

Chester Carlson was married twice, first to Elsa von Mallen in 1934, then to Dorris Hudgins in 1946. He died on September 19, 1968. Up until the Xerox 914 was produced, Carlson had lived in relative poverty, but when he died he was one of the richest men in America. Perhaps uncomfortable with his new found wealth, Carlson donated much of his money anonymously to various causes, such as organizations that supported world peace, civil rights groups, and the United Negro College Fund. He received many awards for his contributions to the field of science, including the Inventor of the Year in 1964 and the Horatio Alger Award in 1966.

From the description of Chester F. Carlson papers, 1930-1989. (RIT Library). WorldCat record id: 758994116

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  • Inventors--Interviews
  • Parapsychology
  • Photocopying machines
  • Xerography
  • Charities
  • Inventors
  • Office equipment and supplies industry--United States
  • Inventions--United States


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