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Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2004 / 12 Mar-Cheshvan, 5765

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

Copier's broken & so am I | True or false: Friday marks the 66th anniversary of the photocopier and to this day, only 17 office workers have learned how to replace the toner cartridge.

Aha! Trick question. Because while inventor Chester Carlson did indeed produce the world's first photocopy in a closet at the back of an Astoria beauty parlor on Oct. 22, 1938, we will never know if ANY office workers can replace the toner, because if they CAN they're not about to admit it. Similarly, you will never hear anyone say, "I LOVE fixing paper jams!" because to do so is to sentence oneself to a life of rescuing crumpled résumés. Generally the résumés of colleagues who HAVEN'T wasted their careers fixing the photocopier.

So you might say I am not completely convinced that the office copier is a great convenience, especially when you factor in the time it takes to walk from Copier 1 (kaput) to Copier 2 (no paper) to Copier 3 (behind the boss' desk and therefore awkward to use for résumé copying, but not if you wait till he's at lunch).

Nonetheless, to read the history of the Xerox machine is to wish I could spend twentysomething years toiling in obscurity just like Carlson, because this lone genius got to change the world.

As I learned from David Owen, author of "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" - uh. Wait. Title made me lose my train of thought. Oh yes! As I learned from Owen, Carlson grew up so poor he actually lived for a while in a one-room chicken coop with his tubercular dad.

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Even as a youngster, Carlson dreamed of inventing great - and not so great - things, like a fake safety pin that would look like it had poked itself through a finger. But after putting himself through college, Carlson had bigger ideas.

Sitting in the New York Public Library, hand-copying long passages out of the law books he was too poor to buy, he suddenly realized: What I need is a copying machine! Moreover: I think I know how to make one, using photoelectricity and photoconductivity!

Unfortunately, the engineering and the need for this machine eluded pretty much everyone else. After all, didn't we already have carbon paper? Kodak, IBM and General Electric all turned him down.

Eventually, of course, Carlson started Xerox, and by 1960 the revolutionary Xerox 914 was breaking down in offices all over America. Sure, it was so dangerous that it came equipped with a fire extinguisher. Sure, it died so often that Xerox provided backup copiers at a deep discount to save on repairman wear and tear. Sure, even today 4% of office workers admit to photocopying body parts that feel the cool of the glass all too keenly. But!

Without Carlson, you couldn't Xerox this column to tape to your own broken copier. That would be a shame.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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