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The History of the Photocopier

Joanna Furlong
, writer
Mar 27, 2019
Image Credit: A_stockphoto/Shutterstock
> Technology

Find out how the lowly photocopier transformed the way we work.

By now, you've likely read about the incredible potential brought on by 3D printing technology. As the ability to create objects from a mere blueprint becomes increasingly common, you can gain an enormous perspective on how far we come from looking back at where it all began: the photocopier.

Inventor Chester Carlson

On Oct. 22, 1938, inventor Chester Carlson first used static electricity by using a handkerchief, light and dry powder to create a copy. His first experiments were literally explosive. He caused many sulfur fires, and he nearly burned down his apartment.

The inventor later developed spinal arthritis. He kept up his experiments for most of his life while studying law and keeping a regular job. He did patent his experiments, though. In December 1946, he signed the first agreement to license electrophotography technology for commercial use. It would be years before people could actually use this technology as they do now. Until then, secretaries everywhere were stuck using carbon paper to make copies.

Editor's note: Looking for a digital copier for your business? If you're looking for information to help you choose the one that's right for you, use the questionnaire below to have our sister site, BuyerZone, provide you with information from vendors for free:


Xerox, a pioneer in photocopying technology

The photocopier was the transformative office tool of its time. Imagine tackling your work without it – likely having to painstakingly copy every document by hand. Before the copier came into existence, there were numerous attempts at early copy automation, yet all were imperfect. That is, until 1959, the year Xerox released the first "modern" version of the photocopier.

It was called "914," and it was bulky, heavy and hard to use. It was about the size of two washing machines, and some of them literally caught on fire.

The machine used a rotating drum to create an electrostatic copy image. The image was transferred to fresh paper using toner, and then the whole thing was sealed using heat. It could create copies in just seven seconds – not terribly far off from the printing speeds of copying and printing machines you might purchase today. This was just the beginning of the wonder of photocopying technology, which rapidly hit offices across the country.

A forever changed workplace

The fast popularity of photocopiers took even Xerox by surprise. The company had estimated that a typical customer would make approximately 2,000 copies a month. But many customers made 10,000 copies; some made 100,000 copies. The technology had taken off.

Beyond making copies easy to obtain, the photocopier changed work cultures and workflows. Prior to the invention, a single hard copy of a document would slowly make its way around the office. Keeping track of who viewed it (or approved it) was a completely manual process. The photocopier, in many ways, was the earliest tip of the sharing and collaboration boom. Knowledge – such as magazine articles, letters and news clips – could be easily copied and shared.

Why? It was more like, "Why not?" The photocopier was there, simply waiting to be used. [Interested in a copy machine? Check out our best picks.]

Competitors join the market

It wasn't until the 1970s that other technology companies joined the fun. Companies such as Canon and Minolta released their own photocopiers – yet Xerox continued to dominate the market. However, over time, these competing technologies improved, and consumers eventually had access to a wide range of photocopier models, from low-end units to enterprise models.

Despite the advent of scanners and document digitization, the use of paper perseveres. In fact, one study reports that "73 percent of the 'owners and decision-makers' at companies with fewer than 500 employees print at least four times per day."

Today's copiers

These devices are now more like multifunction devices. They are often known as all-in-ones. They copy, print, fax and scan from one place. Many modern photocopiers can track usage to reduce unnecessary printing and copying. The most advanced machines tend to come with a digital touchscreen display, wireless accessibility and other user-friendly features.

The machines can range wildly in price, and many printer companies offer numerous configuration options, allowing companies to customize their machines to meet a business's needs. And companies that don't have the cash on hand to buy a machine might lease them instead.

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Joanna Furlong
Joanna Furlong
Joanna Furlong is a freelance writer and content strategist based in Southern California. Her background is in digital marketing, but she’s been writing professionally for more than 10 years. She partners with startups, technology companies and small businesses across the U.S. to tell their brand stories through compelling content. And, she loves to report on the intersection where business, management and technology collide.
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