An Isolated Invention


Xerography had practically no foundation in previous scientific work. Chet [Carlson] put together a rather odd lot of phenomena, each of which was relatively obscure in itself and none of which had previously been related in anyone’s thinking . The result was the biggest thing in imaging since the coming of photography itself. Furthermore, he did it entirely without the help of a favorable scientific climate. As you know, there are dozens of instances of simultaneous discovery down through scientific history, but no one came anywhere near being simultaneous with Chet. John Brooks, Business Adventures: Twelve Classic Tales from the World of Wall Street, 2014 Ed., p. 191.

Typically, an invention happens when a number of people have a similar idea at about the same time, leading to extensive controversy about who really invented what. For example, the invention of the telephone led to multiple lawsuits, and the real inventor became a matter of legal interpretation determined by which side had the better lawyers.

Xerography, on the other hand, was an isolated invention. No one, other than Chester Carlson saw the possibility of combining a photoconducting drum, charged pigment particles, and thermal heating into a useful invention. Yet, these processes made the photocopier and the resulting billion dollar industry a reality.


makes copies of anything…on ordinary paper…even pages in a book!

Note added March 16, 2015:

In further support of the notion that inventions typically occur nearly simultaneously in multiple places, Kevin Ashton provided the following analysis in How to Fly a Horse (2015, p.51):

Because everything arises from steps, not leaps, most things are invented in several places simultaneously when different people walk the same path, each unaware of the others. For example, four different people discovered sunspots independently in 1611; five people invented the steamboat between 1802 and 1807; six people conceived of the electric railroad between 1835 and 1850; and two people invented the silicon chip in 1957. When political scientists William Ogburn and Dorothy Thomas studied this phenomenon, they found 148 cases of big ideas corning to many people at the same time and concluded that their list would grow longer with more research.


About Mark Mizen

I have over twenty years professional experience in all aspects of photography and digital imaging. I am Chair of the ISO WG5 TG2 committee responsible for physical properties and durability of imaging material and am currently with HID Global working on systems for security printing for IDs, licenses, and credit cards. Previously, I was Director of Digital Development at Creative Memories from 2009 to 2012 and was responsible for the Creative Memories digital products and services. I also established and directed the Creative Memories Technology Center, which evaluated new products prior to product introduction, assisted with production difficulties, and provided technical information to support product sales.
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2 Responses to An Isolated Invention

  1. Charlene says:

    As a secretary in the ’60’s I did a happy dance when my company bought a copier. So happy to throw away the carbon paper!

  2. hueynews says:

    3d copies too 🙂

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