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The Decline of the Unique and the Secret

“WHY ARE SO MANY government secrets now leaking to the press?” the knowledgeable James Reston of the New York Times asked in January 1972. To this question, which had been troubling the nation since the unauthorized publication of the Pentagon Papers, the voluminous background material on the Vietnam war, Reston offered an explanation which was neither political nor philosophical nor moral, but purely scientific and technical. “The real source of the leaks,” he proposed, “is Chester Carlson, who invented the electrostatic copying or Xerox system, which now dominates the federal government and influences the flow of information in every other big institution in the country.” With the Xerox machine, anybody could instantly make a copy of any document. According to Reston, this machine, which had been devised in order “to expand information and truth,” had produced the ironic result of making government officials wary of expressing their honest opinions in writing.

For all practical purposes, it was no longer possible to be sure that any document was unique. Photo-offsetting and other similar techniques had imperilled the uniqueness of precious literary manuscripts and first editions; by 1965 a photo-offset copy of a First Folio Shakespeare (an original sold for $30,000) could be bought for only $15. It had become so easy and so inexpensive to make copies of books and parts of books that the law of copyright was becoming obsolete.

Xerox and other forms of electrostatic copying would add new dimensions to the repeatability of experience, enabling anyone who had access to a simple machine to destroy the uniqueness or confidentiality of any document. Now, too, the Polaroid camera, the tape recorder, magnetic tape, video tape and other devices provided instantaneously replayable copies, making daily life into a world of mass-produced moments. Now almost anything that was seen or heard by anyone could also be seen or heard by countless unidentifiable others.

THE PROBLEM OF making multiple copies was as ancient as writing. The rise of the printing press and of movable type had, of course, begun to democratize learning. But the cost of setting type could not be justified except by making numerous copies, and the more copies that were made, the lower the cost of each one; the printing press was obviously most useful when the copies desired ran into the hundreds or thousands. Just as Edison’s problem in democratizing electric light would be how to fragment light into smaller sources, there was a similar problem in the technology of copying. For centuries after the printing press had come into general use, the lack of any other way to make single copies of handwriting sustained the profession of the “copyist,” who reproduced the original in his own handwriting. The ingenious “polygraph,” an eighteenth-century invention, attached a device to the writer’s pen to reproduce its movements on another sheet of paper, and so made a copy of the letter as it was being written. Thomas Jefferson was intrigued by the machine and made some improvements of his own. Still, the common way of making a single copy was by the letterpress: after a letter had been written, it was rolled between sheets of blotting paper, to transfer some of the ink to another sheet. Carbon paper, unknown in Jefferson’s time, would be a great convenience because it required no mechanical apparatus, it was inexpensive, and it provided the copies at the same time as the original.

The machine which made it easier to make legible copies in small numbers was, of course, the typewriter. Even before the nineteenth century some progress toward a writing machine had been made by English inventors. By 1845, two decades before there was a practicable manual typewriter, Samuel F. B. Morse and his partner were sending machine writing long distances electromagnetically, using a keyboard much like that of the typewriter. C. Latham Sholes, a Wisconsin pioneer who made his living as a Milwaukee printer and editor, had been working on an automatic numbering machine when a friend proposed that he develop a letter-printing machine. His crucial typewriter patents were issued in 1868 and “Type-Writer” entered the language as an Americanism. But it was early twentieth century before the typewriter in its modern form appeared, with upper and lower case letters on a single keyboard, and producing fully “visible writing” (i.e., on a carriage which the operator could see as he wrote).

The earliest commercially successful mass-produced typewriters were made by the Remington Arms Company, which turned them out in its sewing-machine department in the 1870’s. Ornamented with floral designs, these machines sat on a sewing-machine stand, and with the treadle arranged so it would operate the carriage return. The first market for typewriters was among authors, editors, and ministers, and it was assumed that the machine would be mainly a tool for the world of letters. Mark Twain boasted of his willingness to use this curious new machine, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is reputed to be the first typewritten manuscript to be set into a book. (By 1930, union printers were refusing to set books from any other kind of manuscript.) Originally there were doubts, however, that the typewriter could ever serve the business world, since its product was so impersonal and so standardized. And, as we have seen, when farmers objected to receiving “machine-made” letters from Sears, Roebuck, the company had to go to the trouble of hiring secretaries who would write the business letters by hand.

The typewriter was destined, of course, to become an important force in American life. By providing a socially acceptable employment for women in the commercial world, it opened new office careers, and (with the telephone) helped bring women out of the kitchen into the world of affairs. But machine writing had other, subtler effects on everyday experience. As the typewritten letter became the norm for business correspondence, handwriting declined and that meant the decline of a visibly distinctive character in what anyone wrote. Throughout the nineteenth century, a clear and elegant handwriting remained a useful skill for the ambitious young man. Colleges of penmanship, in their day, were as important as commercial colleges would become, with their teaching of shorthand and typing.

In widening the reach of the typewriter and in multiplying its effect, few inventions were as important as carbon paper. The idea behind carbon paper was simply to coat a sheet of paper with a special composition of wax and dye which would be transferred to a page when rubbed by a pen or struck by type. What was perhaps the earliest patent for carbon paper (issued in 1869) described this “Improvement in the Preparation of Copying Paper” to be “used with particular advantage in making copies of letters while the same are being written.” But this copying paper was still designed as a simpler alternative to the polygraph which was a cumbersome machine and could copy only handwriting. In 1872, in the early days of the typewriter, there was a patent for “Carbon Paper” specially designed for use with the machine. This new expression entered the American language, bringing unprecedented temptations to fill endless filing cabinets. In the long run, the special advantage of carbon paper (that it made the copy along with the original) proved its limitation.

Convenient techniques for making a small number of multiple copies from a completed original would come from applications of the stencil process. One of the most successful of these was the “mimeograph,” a word coined (from mime, “to imitate,” and graphein, “to write,”) in 1890 by Alfred Blake Dick, who had started in the lumber business in Chicago before going into sale of labor-saving devices for offices. The perfected “mimeograph” combined the process that Dick had patented a few years before with processes that Thomas A. Edison had patented earlier, and with another inventor’s patent for a rotary-drum duplicating machine. Dick marketed a device which inexpensively reproduced copies in ways helpful not only to businesses but to churches, political and reform groups, and many others.

To make a facsimile of a letter that had already been written required photography, which was time-consuming and costly. What was needed was some new technique for inexpensive, speedy, and reliable copying. Microfilming, the histrionically celebrated tool of espionage, had come into use by scholars, archivists, and banking and real estate enterprises before the mid-twentieth century; but it remained too complicated for everyday office use in making single copies.

A REMARKABLE FEATURE of the next step was that it was actually taken by Go-Getting businessmen in search of a new product. In 1946 a small firm in Rochester, New York, called the Haloid Company, was worried about its future. It had produced photocopying equipment to a volume of about $7 million that year, but its profit had fallen to $150,000. The company leaders, Joseph C. Wilson and Dr. John H. Dessauer, decided that the firm needed a new product, although they were not sure what. Dessauer, the director of research, happened on an article in an old issue of Radio News (July 1944) describing a new technique called “electrophotography.” The author of the article and the inventor of the process was Chester F. Carlson, a native of Seattle who had worked his way through the California Institute of Technology and had then been employed in the Bell Laboratories. Carlson’s experience with patents and his interest in the problems of patent lawyers (he was attending New York Law School in the evenings) persuaded him that there was a need for some inexpensive office device to make copies of all sorts. He suspected that this future could not lie with photography (the use of chemicals to record images), since the large research budgets of the big companies had probably pushed photographic research to its limits.

Long evenings in the New York Public Library led Carlson to the comparatively unexplored field of photoconductivity. Was it possible that somehow electricity, instead of light, might be used to make an image? On October 22, 1938, in Astoria, Queens, with the aid of a German refugee physicist, he produced his first electrophotographic image. A 2-inch by 3-inch zinc plate was coated with sulfur, then charged electrostatically by being rubbed with a handkerchief and exposed for ten seconds to a glass slide showing the inscription “10-22-38 Astoria.” The plate was dusted with lycopodium powder, which made the latent image visible, and then a piece of wax paper was pressed against the powdered image, and so imprinted with the image. To distinguish it from photography, this was called “xerography” (from the Greek xeros, “dry,” and graphein, “to write”).

Carlson’s first efforts to secure financial support failed. He tried twenty companies, he went to the National Inventors Council and to the Army Signal Corps, but none was interested. Then in 1944 he finally awakened interest at the Battelle Memorial Institute, a research foundation in Columbus, Ohio, which agreed to develop his process in exchange for a major share of the royalties. But the institute was willing to invest only a few thousand dollars, and when this money was used up, Carlson needed additional support to keep the project alive. It was at that time, in 1946, that Wilson and Dessauer of Haloid went to Battelle; they saw the experiments, decided that this would be their firm’s new product, and invested $10,000. Within the next six years, Haloid raised more than $3.5 million to develop the process, and under the new company name of Xerox became the industrial phenomenon of the mid-century. The Xerox stock paid to Battelle in return for its royalty share in the process had a market value in 1965 of more than $355 million.

The first production-line automatic copier, the Xerox 914 (it made copies up to 9 inches by 14 inches) was delivered in 1960. This Xerox machine, offering inexpensive high-volume copying in a central location in an office, had the advantage over competitors that its copies were made directly onto ordinary paper without need for stencils or any intermediate step. The machines were rented out by Xerox and the unit charge for their use decreased as larger numbers of copies were made. Whole new office systems were developed: the Food and Drug Administration used Xerox to copy labels without taking them off bottles; police officers quickly recorded the contents of a suspect’s pockets. People had to be shown that the novel machine really worked. But since a 650-pound copier could not be carried about by a salesman for demonstration, Xerox turned to television. The company relied heavily on television advertising and pioneered in sponsoring an impressive series of serious, sometimes controversial, programs (“The Kremlin,” “The Making of the President—1960,” “Cuban Missile Crisis,” “The Louvre,” etc.).

When Haloid adopted Xerox as its name, the firm explained that “The ability to process information in quantity; to present it in a form to be read; to print things rapidly and cheaply; to copy things inexpensively; these are capacities that may spell the difference between a society that is growing fast enough commercially and one which is not.” Having developed and perfected its technique for copying, which satisfied all these requirements, Xerox, soon followed by collaborators and competitors, went in search of anything and everything to be copied.

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