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Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg – Chester Carlson and the Birth of the Xerox Machine, by David Owen (Simon & Schuster; 320 pages) Science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any sufficiently developed technology is indistinguishable from magic.” The Xerox copier may not have achieved quite that level of perfection, as anyone who’s ever tried changing a toner cartridge knows. But the technology of making document copies is so ubiquitous and necessary today that it’s difficult to imagine how businesses ever managed without it. In his new book, Copies in Seconds, David Owen pulls off an equally magical feat by turning the history of the xerographic process into an unlikely page-turner. Owen ranges from the earliest efforts to duplicate documents, thousands of years ago, to the twentieth-century success of Xerox Corporation. The key figure in Owen’s tale is Chester Carlson, the man who conceived xerography and who worked with Xerox to turn his inspiration into a reality. A staff writer at The New Yorker and a science journalist by trade, Owen uses his technical expertise to explain many of the complicated principles quietly at work in the average copier. The author’s detailed research, clever insights, and witty, conversational style make Copies a captivating read. Anyone who’s familiar with advertising, for example, will enjoy hearing about Xerox’s first marketing attempts in the 1950s. The company’s early copiers had a tendency to catch fire, which its ads tactfully referred to as “scorches.” But the book is most engaging as a biography of Carlson, who died in 1968 at age 62. He wrote extensively in journals and kept lists throughout his life, and many of his friends and coworkers were interviewed by Owen. The author has used this material to tell a personal history that is, in the least saccharine sense of the word, inspiring. The account of Carlson’s youth puts other hard-luck tales to shame. When he was a child, his father was afflicted with tuberculosis and his mother suffered from malaria. The family was forced to flee their tarantula-infested adobe hut in Mexico because of the chaos caused by the country’s ongoing revolution. After that, the family’s fortunes declined even further, and Carlson grew up in poverty. As a child, he decided that the best way to make a lot of money quickly would be to invent something. Carlson’s pivotal insight in developing xerography � that photoelectric materials could be used to reproduce documents � is one of the few examples of a major technological innovation wholly conceived by a single person. Of the complexity of the underlying science, Owen writes: “Photoelectricity is so hard to understand that Albert Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921 for having explained it in 1905.” In 1944 Carlson finally found a company willing to invest in his idea. That business sold the development rights three years later to the company that eventually became Xerox. At this point Copies shifts from a personal to a corporate story. Owen spoke to many of the very first Xerox employees and unearthed a trove of anecdotes, including the debate on naming the process and the company. (“Xerography” comes from the Greek word xeros, meaning “dry,” and graphein, for “writing.” Carlson, who had joined the company as a research engineer, disliked the name and argued for “electrophotography” in vain.) The execution of Copies isn’t flawless. At times, Owen’s style is too informal, and he interjects himself into the narrative a few times too often. Those looking for a more detailed history of Xerox will leave with a strong impression of only its earliest days; later years (and missteps) aren’t chronicled here. And the book’s balance between personal biography and technological history falters near the end, when Carlson all but vanishes for many pages and Owen turns his attention to Xerox. But Owen returns to Carlson in the end. After the inventor achieved his childhood dreams of wealth, he set out to give away all of his money. He didn’t quite succeed � considering the exponential rate at which his Xerox shares grew in value, it was nearly impossible � but he donated millions to causes great (the civil rights movement) and small (paying off the mortgages of elderly neighbors). Though Carlson became an inventor to make money, in the end he discovered that he loved inventing more than wealth. Vincent is a former staff reporter at The American Lawyer, a sibling publication of Corporate Counsel.

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