Carbon Paper is Cheaper–the billions no one wanted

A laser printer sits by my desk. Not far away, an ink jet printer. In grade school had someone described such devices, it would have been the stuff of science fiction.

Even in the early 1990’s, an office of over 200 people shared one Apple laser printer whose price had just dropped to $5000. The other laser was in the President’s office and off limits to the rest of us. Can you imagine the pandemonium to get things printed right before an important presentation to our Company President? The Ethernet crashed as a dozen managers crowded their graphic intensive slides onto the system.

How did it all start and why didn’t anyone see it coming – desktop publishing, that is?

It started with a patent in 1942 from a firm based out of Rochester, New York, called Haloid that had been doing photo copies. In the 1940’s there were several ways to make copies and these methods persisted right into the era when we put men into space and onto the moon.

There was carbon paper – a sheet that slipped between two pieces of paper and when the typewriter hammers struck the paper, the carbon made a blurry, but readable image on the paper below. The carbons could be stacked and six to eight ever blurrier images generated – depending on how fresh the carbon paper was and how hard the typewriter hammers could be driven into the paper. Naturally, there was time for humor when the carbon paper’s face got reversed and the back of the page produced the mirror image of the front.

But carbon paper was a good servant and cheap – about a penny a sheet – and reusable.

For documents requiring greater circulation, there was the mimeograph machine and the kids in school – whose tests were always mimeographed–were treated to the exotic smell of that process that utilized a solvent to produce documents – in essence a wet-process.

But there was also the need for very high resolution copies and so a photostat was taken–essentially a photograph of the document. We see spies doing this with miniature cameras in movies of old. Today practically anyone can be this sort of James Bond and can take pictures willy-nilly with a cell phone, but I am getting ahead of my story.

Haloid’s patents were for a dry process using carbon, but not carbon paper. In this process, a blank page is electrostatically charged and an image of the original is optically projected onto the blank page. Where the projected image is opaque, finely divided carbon particles cling to the blank page. Where it is not opaque, the particles do not cling.

Haloid thought this would be a big industry and they went to IBM and other giants in the late 1950’s to try and get them to invest in this process and to commercialize it.

IBM did a market study and their marketing people said that by 1980, the worldwide market for Haloid’s machines (twenty year’s worth) would be just 200 machines, mostly owned by governments that had to do massive printing jobs that were not quite worth sending to a printing press – a cheaper alternative.

The part that stuck in everyone’s craw was that these copies would run about a dime – and remember, carbon paper is cheaper and reusable.

With some money from a cab driver and the local university, Haloid went it alone and the rest is history. Haloid changed its name and the world all knows them now – Xerox.

There is a fascinating story of the billions no one wanted and the story of Xerox, so let me jump back – back even before Haloid.

In the 1930’s and before, the Japanese needed a way to transmit their information which did not lend itself, easily, to the teletypes. Teletypes were typewriters that sent keystroke information over wire or sometimes on spools of paper, like player pianos, telling the typewriter at some remote location, what key to hit. These were sometimes, loosely, called Telex machines.

The technology the Japanese embraced was to use electronic signals, sometimes sound, to tell a printing head where to lay down ink or where not to. These primitive images, the facsimile, or FAX, were blurry and very poor, but they were quite often readable. The technology was not widely used as it was too expensive when Romanji, as the Japanese call the Roman/Latin alphabet, could be transmitted cheaper over wire by telex. Yet for the Japanese, the phone line now became a way of transmitting images.

Fast forward. Along the way, Apple computer successfully united the two technologies. Quality images from scanned information over a conduit of some kind – wire – and the laser printer was born.

Oh, I nearly forgot. The laser – Light Amplification by the Stimulated Emission of Radiation. We need a cheap source of well columnated light. The cheap laser, hand-held laser, made the modern laser printer a reality. Now instead of scanning a document, the information that used to be sent from the original to the copy is now encoded in the way the fax did it and sent to the printer. Presto!

The rest of the story we all know – the costly technologies that came down in price and also in size. Being smaller in size, they tended to require less power and heat, the enemy of most electronics, was reduced and with integrated circuits and computers on a chip at low cost, reliability was enhanced.

Yet, for all the vision and fortitude of the technology pioneers in this field, Xerox is our best example, have not fared well and some have faltered. Apple is not the chief maker of laser printers nor is Xerox. Hewlett-Packard was for a while, but Brother, a typewriter maker entered the market and that printer is the one that sits next to my desk, right next to my Epson scanner, made by a firm that made its name in printers, but now scans my 35 mm slides onto a CD ROM.

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