From the Archives: How Battelle Turned an Unloved Invention into Xerox
Editor’s note: Battelle—in the headlines for its latest invention, a mask-sanitizing machine that government officials are hailing as a potential game changer in the battle against COVID-19—has a long history of remarkable innovations. And perhaps none was more important (and more interesting) than the invention of the copy machine, an underdog saga told by Columbus Monthly staffer Adrienne Bosworth in 1981.
The story has lost so much in the retelling that individuals, recipients of tales handed down over the years, reduce it: This guy came in to see Clyde Williams at Battelle and showed him this thing that copied stuff and Williams said, gee, that's neat, and Xerox was born.
Actually, the story is better than that, and longer. It is one of those marvelous tales of American industry that seem to fit better in the 19th century along with Charles Goodyear and the process for vulcanizing rubber or William Burroughs and the adding machine.
And, actually, by the time the crude device was shown to Clyde Williams, then the director of Battelle Memorial Institute, it had already gained the interest of some key scientists at Battelle, and what Williams thinks he said to inventor Chester Carlson was something on the order of: "Boy, you've really got something here."
Today, Xerox is a worldwide corporation with sales in excess of $7 billion and a name so much a part of the language that the company is forced to spend thousands in advertising dollars to keep its trademark from being misused as a synonym for "copy."
But here in Columbus there are men—chemists, physicists, engineers—mostly retired now, who still recall the days in the late '40s and the '50s when a handful of Battelle people tinkered and tested to develop Carlson's curiosity into a marketable product.
Carlson was a patent attorney who had initially trained in physics at California Institute of Technology and who, according to the official histories of xerography, became determined to find a better way to duplicate the drawings and descriptions required of patent work. He felt a dry process was needed, something that could be used in an office, a photoelectrical device rather than a chemical means. Much like the 19th-century inventors, Carlson went to work at the kitchen sink.
"He was a placid man," recalls Dr. Russell Dayton, the Battelle metallurgist who brought Carlson's work to the institute and who, though officially retired, still spends most of his mornings on projects for Battelle. But Carlson also was "filled with determination. He was scrupulous and had more integrity than anyone I've ever met. He was rather shy…”
He was a man, according to Dayton, who "arrived at an idea because he saw so clearly the need. And using textbook physics, he got this very broad patent."
Carlson filed his first patent application in 1937, improved the process over the next few years and obtained additional patents.
The device was extremely rough. "Carlson was a better patent attorney than a physicist," says William T. Reid, who also now spends his retirement working on new projects for Battelle, but who then was an up and coming member of Battelle's graphic arts group. "Those patents were so good, they saved it for 17 years."
Actually, as things turned out, Carlson's original patents expired before the famous 914 copier ever came on the market, and it was the patent structure developed at Battelle that protected xerography from competitive inroads.
Anyhow, it didn't matter. Xerography, then known by the more cumbersome name of electrophotography, was an idea whose time had not come. Nobody wanted it. Carlson spent years trying to interest various firms in his process. He was said to have tried some 20 companies, attempting to get them to pick up the idea and develop it. “I think he tried them all,” says Reid with a chuckle. "DuPont, Agva … all of them. Kodak laughed at him. Nobody saw any market for it.” Even 10 years later, with a commercial product closer to reality and a firm nearing the point of manufacturing a dry copying machine, "a market survey said the total copying business might reach $90 million a year—maximum for 100 percent of the market," Reid recalls. "Nobody had any idea of the potential."
At the time it was brought to Battelle, "I was quite skeptical," admits Frank Croxton. “But I was a chemist and not really qualified to evaluate it.” Now in semi-retirement at home in Upper Arlington, he was, in the initial days of xerography, the head of chemical research for Battelle. And he suggests that even the little Haloid Co., the Rochester, N.Y., producer of photographic paper that did eventually sign on to sponsor Carlson's project—hungry as it was for a new product—probably wouldn't have bought in if Carlson had just turned up on its doorstep one day without Battelle behind him.
At Battelle, says Dayton, "of those who knew about it, at least 50 percent thought it was a stupid idea and that Battelle should never have gotten into it. It just goes to prove that if you've got something unique, you don't take a poll.”
The way Battelle got into xerography was happenstance. On a day in 1944, Dayton was in New York to meet with lawyer Carlson regarding a patent problem on some work the institute had done for one of Carlson's clients. After their business discussion, Dayton says. "He reached into his desk and pulled out the patent and asked me if I'd ever seen this. I said no, and I read it."
It struck him, Dayton says, "that here was an entirely new type of photography." He notes, parenthetically, "Carlson was always hepped up about an office copier. In my own view, that was OK but there was potential for lots of other things.”
Battelle then, as now,was primarily a facility for sponsored research. Clyde Williams, already director for a decade, had developed contract research to a fine art. But there was Battelle Development Corporation (BDC). Williams started BDC a year after he became director as an entity within the larger organization that would develop discoveries and inventions of Battelle scientists and technicians for subsequent licensing or sale to industry.
BDC had never taken an outside project. But Dayton was intrigued and took Carlson's story back to Columbus and John Crout, the head of BDC, to try to get BDC to make an exception. "I told him that here was something he ought to take on."
They then went to Williams, who called in Roland Schaffert, an engineer who worked on projects for the printing industry. Schaffert did his own evaluation and said he could see potential in it, and Battelle decided to go ahead with the project despite all the rejections Carlson had received from industry.
"Our business is new ideas," says Dayton. "The rejections by business firms were a reluctance to introduce something new that interfered with their present business. It's no different today."
An agreement was arranged. BDC became Carlson's agent. He would get 40 percent of all royalties and BDC would get 60 percent. For its part, Battelle would invest $10,000 in research. If additional funds were needed, Battelle would get an additional 1 percent for every $1,000 invested up to $15,000 unless Carlson reimbursed BDC for half the additional expenditures.
There is a tendency to credit the people at Battelle with a foresight that nobody else had. More likely, it was the atmosphere at Battelle, the willingness to be challenged by scientific inquiry, that propelled the physicists and chemists and engineers—and Williams—to take the risks. As Williams talks about his years at Battelle—he directed the institute for 23 years—and as former associates talk about Williams, it becomes obvious that for Carlson, Battelle in the mid 1940s was the right place at the right time.
Now 87, with details of the past lost in memory, Williams still recalls his overriding mission: "My philosophy was that well-organized research in a practical field would be successful some way or other and was worth the expenditure of substantial amounts of money."
From the start, Williams was a builder. He wanted Battelle to be a big research facility, not limited to any one field of science. "It was a weakness of the Mellon Institute," he says. He felt, "that it restricted its activities to one field, to chemical research for the chemical industry. I saw a great opportunity to do many different kinds of research."
But that required money, more money than the endowment from Gordon Battelle's will. "I wanted to build up Battelle through research for industry," Williams says. "The endowment was big enough to keep a certain number of men engaged. But I wanted to have a big research operation and initiated this plan to do research for industry. ..."
For the people who worked with Williams, there was an excitement generated by this vision. "We had a saying about Williams," Reid recalls with amusement, "that he bit off more than we could chew."
Croxton calls it Williams' “entrepreneurial sense. He was good at seeing the possibilities and going to bat with the board of trustees. There was also his ability to convince researchers that they had something worthwhile. Clyde developed enthusiasm. He was good at that kind of salesmanship." The line Croxton associates with Williams is, "Well, let's do it."
To Dayton, Clyde Williams was a man "wholeheartedly devoted to a great idea: There was nothing Battelle couldn't do. We could do anything we wanted to do and by God we were going to do it.”
The graphic arts group took on the Carlson project. The group worked in leased quarters at 2525 N. High St., because the main Battelle facility on King Avenue had run out of room. The nation was still at war and the majority of Battelle work was for the war effort. Reid remembers a staff of some 40 to 50 people in graphic arts, of which perhaps 15 to 18 were doing work on xerography. The name, incidentally, was selected with the help of an Ohio State professor of classical languages from the Greek, xeros, for "dry”and graphos, for "writing."
For the small xerography project group, there were enormous problems to overcome. Carlson had come with a terribly elemental device that Reid likens to "cat's fur and hard rubber," something to create static electricity and something to conduct it. But there was the challenge. "We believed that if something already worked, it was obsolete," Reid says.
The major step in developing the process was determining the proper photo conductive material that could be layered on a metal or aluminum plate. After many experiments, it was discovered that a form of selenium could be produced that would hold an electrical charge. It was almost too good.The charge would leak in the darkroom. And then one day, someone decided to turn off the darkroom safety light. In total darkness, the process worked.
There had to be a way of producing a perfectly clean plate on which to apply the selenium, "We found that it worked by using Glass Wax on the aluminum before putting the selenium on … plain Glass Wax that people were using to clean windows," Reid explains. "We had to find what was in the Glass Wax that did it. We must have tried 50 different things."
And they tried perhaps 500 different formulations to solve the problems with the “toner," the developer powder. Tests that worked in the winter when the air in the building was dry didn't work in the summer when the air was humid. The concern was, Reid says, “Would we only be able to produce a product to use up North and not in Florida?"
There was a need to get a uniform static charge on the plate. Lewis E. Walkup, an electrical engineer in the graphic arts division, wrote that it was first done by using a single needle, then a few and finally a row of sewing needles known to emit a corona discharge consisting of gas ions.… Needles were later replaced by fine wires borrowed from the wire recorders that were just making their appearance in those days, but not until we had bought just about all of the No. 9 sewing needles in the Columbus area!"
Reid, who served as chief of the graphic arts division between 1950 and 1955, recalls the labors. "There were some Fridays I would go home down in the dumps. I wondered, what are we going to tell Joe [Joseph Wilson, executive vice president of Haloid] and Carlson and the others? I would come in Monday morning and there would be new samples, good ones. Some of the fellows came in over the weekend to work on it."
Haloid's entry into the xerography story followed Battelle by just a few years. The Haloid Company was once dominant in the market for photographic paper, but competition was catching up. It needed new products. John Dessauer, a Haloid research chemist, had read a description of xerography in a trade journal and he and Wilson came to Battelle to investigate the prospects of getting involved.
As recounted in a Battelle publication by Edward E. Slowter, who retired two years ago as Battelle vice president and treasurer, "After comparatively brief negotiations, Battelle and Haloid agreed that Haloid would sponsor part of Battelle's continuing research in xerography and, in exchange, would receive a license to develop machines that would print up to 20 copies. The Battelle Development Corporation kept rights to everything else."
In 1948, a second agreement was negotiated to give Haloid exclusive rights for BDC's patents from its xerographic research and provide Battelle with royalty payments no matter how the process was used.
"The first commercial product, the Model A Copier, came off the line in 1949," Slowter reported. "It was a crude machine unsuited for use as an office copier because it required a series of hand operations three or four minutes in length to produce a single copy."
"It was awkward,” says Dayton of the Model A. "It was a commercial flop.” That is, it was a flop until, Dayton explains, "One of our people called up Haloid and said, 'You know what you've got?You've got the cheapest way to make good paper lithographic plates.' "
The Model A produced income for Haloid as research and development continued toward perfection of a marketable office copier. But even before the 914 copier came on the market (the number referred to the size of material it could copy, up to 9 by 14 inches), payments to Battelle in the form of royalties were causing a concern about a cash drain at Haloid.
"One of the most fascinating parts of this story," Dayton says, is the gamble that Haloid was willing to take. "It was a small company and it put itself in hock for this. It had faith and the risks were enormous. If the machine had flopped, the company would have flopped."
In 1955, a new contract was signed which transferred all of Battelle's existing and future rights in xerography in return for stock in the company. Carlson got 40 percent of the deal.
Williams' recollections, in a book, “Bridging the Gap,” published in 1976, were that Haloid royalties to Battelle amounted to some $200,000 a year by 1954, much of it going into continued research and development in xerography. According to Williams, a new agreement was necessary to enable Battelle's future profits to increase quickly and to free up working capital for Haloid. He recommended: "We should change our contract from the royalty agreement to one wherein Battelle Development Corporation assigned its entire rights to the process in return for Haloid stock. This proposal was accepted."
Haloid stock was sold in the over-the-counter market and news of the new product obviously had reached Wall Street. “I remember that once a month I'd get a call from this stock broker asking me what's going on," says Reid. "Of course, I didn't want to tell him too much."
Dayton recalls that Haloid had been selling for $5 a shares and went to $12 "on the strength of the rumors."
Some of the people at Battelle made personal investments. "It was no big deal," says Croxton. "There were people who thought this might amount to something, and knowing the people at Haloid, they decided to buy some stock." Some people made a lot of money; some sold too soon.
Reid says he bought $1,000 worth of stock and sold it four years later for $5,000. Another man put in $1,000 and held on. "He eventually sold half of it for over $100,000," Croxton recounts. Then there was the man who bought stock and sold it to buy an automobile. As he watched the stock soar over the years, he would refer wryly to his "$100,000 car."
Dayton—who started it all for Battelle—didn't buy any. "I didn't have any money," he explains. "I was raisinga family, I had bought a house...."
If there was a turning point between moderate success and unimagined riches, it no doubt came in 1957 when Haloid's attempt to find a corporation that would manufacture and sell the 914 were unsuccessful and Wilson decided to go ahead and manufacture the machines on his own and rent them. The next year, the company's name was changed to "Haloid Xerox."
Dayton says he never did hear which company rejected the opportunity to manufacture and sell the copiers, deciding there was not a big enough market to take on the license. "It was probably the usual market survey bit," he says. “A company asks its customers who had never heard of dry copiers, never seen one—they didn't exist—if they would use one. They said no, so there was no market." As far as Dayton is concerned, the wrong question was asked. It wasn't whether a market existed in the present, but whether the market would be created.
In mid 1960, after 13 years of research and painstaking development and after an investment of some $40 million, the 914 went on the market. Commercial acceptance was practically instantaneous. By the end of the year, the demand was almost double what had been expected.
In 1961, the name Haloid was dropped and the small Rochester company became the Xerox Corporation. The next year, its gross revenues totaled $100 million, and by 1965, the 914 copier alone was bringing the company almost $250 million. There was a waiting list of customers.
Battelle and Carlson were the recipients of stock that eventually was worth some $500 million. Carlson, who was to die in 1968 at the age of 62, was a multimillionaire. Battelle was worth 100 times the amount Gordon Battelle and his mother had left for its endowment. The impact on the institute was enormous.
Carlson, whose idea revolutionized an industry, never did anything else of a technological nature.
Dayton laughs at the thought. "Wasn't that enough?” he asks.
This story originally appeared in the February 1981 issue of Columbus Monthly.
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.