David Owen convincingly argues that the Xerox machine was one of the most unique inventions of the twentieth century. In part, xerography is unusual because it was entirely conceived by a single inventor and not a case of simultaneous discovery (p. 12).
The book gives a thorough layman’s explanation of how early copy machines worked. They did not use photographic technologies, but instead leverage static electricity. In fact, early models caused the paper to pick up so much static electricity that secretaries who worked with the copier complained that it killed the nerves in their arms (p. 204).
One harbinger of the copy machine’s success was when its developers began to use it for “dogfooding”. By the time that the model 914 was far enough along, in 1960, engineers could use it to make copies of their own technical drawings rather than sending them to a blue printer (p. 224).
Beyond sheer invention, Xerox was also brilliant at marketing. The company produced some of the most memorable TV ads of the 1960’s. Another tactic, used in live demonstrations, involved placing a customers watch face-down inside the copier to prove that it could produce 7 copies per minute (p. 254).
As with other important inventions, the Xerox machine also had social ipmlications. When copying was expensive you would only do it for important documents such as contracts. Once it became cheap it was used for previously unforeseen applications. One example is bridal registries, which did not exist before it became easy to copy a wishlist.
Two great quotes from the book are:
Civilization moves at the speed of duplication.
The crucial office supply was always light.