The History of Photocopy


Today, photocopying is taken for granted everywhere. Devices called copiers in just about every supermarket allow you to make paper replicas in a matter of seconds for mere pocket change. However, photocopying is a relatively recent invention, only gaining momentum in the mid-20th century.

Pre-20th Century

  • German scientist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742 to 1799) invented a dry electrostatic printing process in 1778. However, it never caught on. People before the 20th century mostly relied on making longhand copies of documents, and even with the technological advances, early photocopying was a long, wet and messy process.


  • Chester Carlson (1906 to 1968) is credited as the inventor of modern photocopying. Carlson, working as a patent manager at an electronics firm while going to law school at night, eventually grew tired of either taking photos of patents or making longhand copies of them. So he wanted a process of making copies that would not only be less expensive and time consuming, but also would enable him to make a lot more replicas.

    After conducting a series of experiments in a lab in Queens in New York City, Carlson finally found a solution when he rubbed a handkerchief over a sulphur-coated aluminum plate, then exposed the plate to make a copy of an image on a piece of paper. "10-22-38 Astoria" were the first words he ever copied.


  • Carlson patented the invention in 1938 and called it "electrophotography" to distinguish his comparatively dry method. Carlson pitched his idea to several companies in the next few years. Battelle eventually teamed up with a small manufacturing company called Haloid in a licensing agreement to improve on the photocopying process for mainstream viability. It was during this time that they began to call the process "xerography," drawing from the Greek words "xeros" (dry) and "graphos" (writing).

The First Copying Machine

  • In 1950, Haloid began to sell its first copier, the Haloid Xerox Copier. By the 1960s, however, the company sold the machines as Xerox---to reflect the company's name change. To this day, Xerox is synonymous with photocopying.


  • These days, copiers are as common as ever---in educational institutions, department stores and corporate offices. However, due to advances in technology since Chester Carlson's breakthrough, a multitude of multifunction devices manufactured by companies such as HP, Brother and Epson include copying capabilities, as well as that of printing, scanning and faxing.

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