“It’s not like there’s some magic machine that makes identical copies of things.”
The line, delivered by “Mad Men’s” ad executive Don Draper, gets a chuckle out of us, viewing it as the 21st century technophiles that we are. Indeed, the episode takes place in March, 1960, coincidentally the same month that Xerox started shipping the Model 914 — the first commercially successful modern copier. Weighing over a quarter ton, with a propensity to catch fire if overtaxed, it cranked out a reasonable image every 26 seconds. To get that kind of performance, you’d have to spend $29,500, or a little over $200,000 in 2013 dollars.
But Don was right; the modern copier took the business world by storm. Sure, prior to 1960, Don’s secretary could use a carbon paper if she only needed one or two copies (and she didn’t make any mistakes). Or she could make purple-inked, chemical-smelling mimeographs with a hand crank (anyone who graduated from high school prior to 1995 or so can remember the smell). And there were predecessors to the 914 dating back over a decade — Don’s art department probably had one — but they often used chemically-coated paper, required multiple mechanical moves, and/or required mixing up toxic chemicals. The idea that you could put a piece of paper on a flat piece of glass, press a button, and get a copy half a minute later was indeed revolutionary. Xerox sold over 200,000 914 units over an extraordinary sixteen year run.
And the basic technology is still with us with modern copiers: Charge a drum (or belt) with a negative static charge, project an image of the original with a positive charge, which makes dry powder stick to the drum. The drum transfers the powder to paper, and a heated process locks it onto the paper. Over the last 53 years we’ve seen improvements in performance and reliability, and added thousands of features, like collating, document feeding, two-sided printing, scanning, and of course the digital features that we rely on today. But inside the machine the basic principles of the 914 live on in the most advanced copiers on the planet, like 105-page per minute Canon ImageRunner 105. It’s also what makes your laser printer work.
Xerox owned the copier market until 1975, when a Federal Trade Commission consent decree declared them a monopoly. Within a few years, multiple competitors entered the marketplace, giving us the incredible advances in technology that we’ve seen since then.
It’s easy to take modern office equipment for granted, but 50 short years ago, the humble copier in your office really would have been “some magic machine.” Imagine what kind of new features the next 50 years will bring…