Book review: Copies in Seconds

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I'm a big fan of technological histories and I just finished David Owen's Copies in Seconds. Copies in Seconds tells the story of the invention of the Xerox machine. It's truly an amazing story. Chester Carlson filed his first patent on of photocopying (called "electrophotography" back then) in 1937 and it took until 1960 for the first really commercially usable photocopier (the Haloid Xerox 914) to be brought to market.

Why? Despite the simplicity of the photocopying concept and the push-button reliability of modern photocopiers, building a working photocopier turns out to be incredibly complicated, with issues ranging from paper handling to getting the toner to stick to the paper to getting the excess toner off the paper without smudging the copy. At pretty much every stage of the operation, a sane person--or company--would have given it up as hopeless, but Carlson and Haloid stuck it out and changed the world.

David Owen does a good job with this book, starting with a 50-page history of pre-Carlson printing and duplication technology and then moving on to the 20+ year history of the development of a working photocopier. Throughout he does a good job of explaining the technical obstacles faced by the Haloid engineers and how they overcame them. Copies in Seconds isn't as good as Rhodes's Making of the Atomic Bomb but it's a solid effort and worth checking out.

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You might like to read Fumbling the Future, about the more recent history of the Xerox corporation. Its a facinating look at how the company set up one of the most innovative labs of the time, Xerox PARC, and then basically ignored what they did.

It's more of a business book than a engineering book, but it's something that may be very interesting to historically-minded computer people. Xerox could have at the very least been as big as Dell or IBM, and very well might have taken the position of today's Microsoft, except that they never actually used anything they invented.

Fumbling the Future is good but I prefer Dealers of Lightning... I'll be writing a review of that as soon as I can get my hands on a copy (someone borrowed mine and never gave it back...)

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