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Carlson, Chester

Category: Scientist

Painting by Mark Schuler

Chester Floyd Carlson (February 8, 1906 – September 19, 1968) was a physicist, inventor, and patent attorney.  He was also a philanthropist of considerable note.  Carlson was born in Seattle, Washington. His grandparents on both sides came from Sweden.  Freedom of worship was one reason for coming to the United States.  Carlson came from a devout Christian family.

Carlson is best known for having invented the process of electrophotography, which produced a dry copy rather than a wet copy.  Carlson patented the first process for the dry copying, "xerographic method," which is the foundation of all modern photocopiers and laser printers. He was also a founder of Xerox Corporation.  Although Chester Carlson invented Xerography in 1938, it took twenty-one years before the first office copier was available to the public. During the first eight months of production, Haloid (later renamed Xerox) sold more copiers then they expected to sell in the product's entire life cycle.

The persistence required by Chester is recognised in the award he received from the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans.  This organization honours the achievements of outstanding individuals who have succeeded in spite of adversity and adversity he suffered in great spade loads.


Despite this he gave millions to charity. As in all true philanthropy work, much of the help he gave was anonymous and few knew of the extent to which he supported many worthwhile causes. 

Carlson made large contributions to organizations that promoted world peace.  He supported civil rights organizations and bought apartment buildings in New York City and Washington, D.C. and arranged for the buildings to be racially integrated.  

From 1956 to 1965, he earned royalties on his patents from Xerox, amounting to about one-sixteenth of a cent for every Xerox copy made worldwide and much of it went to charities.  In 1968, Fortune magazine ranked Carlson among the wealthiest people in America, but he sent them a brief letter:
"Your estimate of my net worth is too high by $150 million. I belong in the 0 to $50 million bracket." This was because Carlson had already spent years quietly giving most of his fortune away. He told his wife his remaining ambition was "to die a poor man."

Carlson is memorialized by buildings at the two largest institutions of higher learning in Rochester, New York, Xerox's hometown. The Chester F. Carlson Center for Imaging Science, a department of the Rochester Institute of Technology, specializes in remote sensing, eye tracking, and xerography. The University of Rochester's Carlson Science and Engineering Library is the University's primary library for the science and engineering disciplines.

The Chester Carlson Fund awards persons or institutions for significant research or development within the area of information science. The price is administrated by the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Science, IVA, and the price is awarded by the Chester Carlson Fund with representatives from Xerox and IVA.

— U Thant, secretary-general, United Nations, at the Xerox memorial service for Chester Carlson

"To know Chester Carlson was to like him, to love him, and to respect him. He was generally known as the inventor of xerography, and although it was an extraordinary achievement in the technological and scientific field, I respected him more as a man of exceptional moral stature and as a humanist. His concern for the future of the human situation was genuine, and his dedication to the principles of the United Nations was profound. He belonged to that rare breed of leaders who generate in our hearts faith in man and hope for the future."


The spiritual interests of Chester Carlson

In the autumn of 1934, Carlson married Elsa von Mallon. Carlson described the marriage as "an unhappy period interspersed with sporadic escapes".  But then in the 1940s, Carlson met Dorris Helen Hudgins, and this was to change his entire life, because Dorris was a very gifted psychic.  Carlson divorced Elsa in 1945 and married Dorris Hudgins in January 1946. He and Dorris lived in a Rochester, NY suburb and donated heavily to spiritual and parapsychological groups; he and his wife were active members of the American Society for Psychical Research.


Dorris got Carlsen interested in Hinduism, particularly the ancient texts known as the Vedanta, as well as in Zen Buddhism.

They hosted Buddhist meetings, with meditation, at their home. After reading Philip Kapleau's book The Three Pillars of Zen, Dorris invited Kapleau to join their meditation group; in June 1966, they provided the funding that allowed Kapleau to start the Rochester Zen Center.  Dorris paid for 1,400 acres (5.7 km2) of land that became Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji, a Zen monastery in the Catskill Mountains of New York led by Eido Tai Shimano. There is a sad side to this as it is clear that Carlson’s gift was abused after his death, his wife wrote in a letter to Jean Bankier

"Indeed, I do not share that same confidence in him [Shimano 嶋野] that I once did and this is because so many reliable sources have reported to me that the spiritual stature of the Zen Studies Society has been compromised over the years because of Eido Roshi's (嶋野)behavior."

More successful perhaps and certainly of greater long term value is that Chester also funded the work Dr Ian Stevenson did on reincarnation.  Carlson not only made annual donations to the University of Virginia to fund Stevenson's work, but in 1964 he made a particularly large donation that helped fund one of the first endowed chairs at the University. 

Half a Career with the Paranormal - IAN STEVENSON - Department of Psychiatric Medicine, University of Virginia Health System, Charlottesville, VA, USA

…. the second important reader of my 1960 article in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research was Chester F. Carlson, the inventor of xerography. He had trained as a scientist, and before his second marriage he believed, as most scientists did (and still do), that the mind is only a product of the brain and its properties entirely physical. His second wife, Dorris, had some capacity for extrasensory perception. She impressed her husband with her ability and also influenced him to support research into paranormal phenomena. Early in 1961 he offered funds for my research after I had already committed myself to going to India in August. I told him that I could not honestly accept additional funds at that time. (Before leaving for India I did nevertheless accept from him a few hundred dollars for a tape recorder.)

When my first work in India showed the need for further journeys there, it occurred to me that I could make those journeys if I could reduce the time I was then giving to clinical practice. Chester Carlson made this possible with annual gifts to the University of Virginia. In 1964 he made a particularly large donation that became the ‘‘deposit,’’ so to speak, for an endowed chair of which I was the first incumbent. It was, incidentally, one of the first such chairs at the University of Virginia. The funds of the endowed chair gave me more time for research, but the expenses of journeys to investigate cases still needed annual donations, which Chester Carlson also provided.


As a donor of funds for research, Chester Carlson was unusual, perhaps unique. He insisted on giving anonymously, but other donors have done this.  Most donors, however, later remain detached from the details of the research they support. Chester Carlson, in contrast, followed the details of research—at least of what I was doing—with keen interest. He said he would like to observe some of my interviews, and he accompanied me on one of my field trips to Alaska, where I was studying cases among the Tlingit peoples. He sometimes asked questions, but was never obtrusive. He rarely made suggestions, but what he said always deserved attention. My friendship with him belongs among the most pleasant and also, ...the most important of my memories.

The report of my first studies in Asia was in press when unexpectedly a man who had helped me with some cases was accused of cheating. Although the allegation applied to experiments with which I had nothing to do, suspicion spread to the work the accused man had done for me, and the editor stopped the printing of my report. I had had other interpreters besides the man accused of cheating, and, believing that the man had not cheated when working with me, I proposed to return to India and study the cases anew. Yet this entailed great additional expense, and I asked Chester Carlson’s advice. He encouraged me to return to India. I did this and, with new interpreters, showed the authenticity of the cases. The printing of my report was then resumed, and it was duly published as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation (Stevenson 1966/1974a).


In 1968 Chester Carlson died. I was just one of many persons who mourned his death as a personal loss. His friendship and that of his wife, Dorris, had enriched my life beyond measure. For me, however, his death also meant the end of his annual subsidies for my research. I remember thinking I would have to return to the other half of my career, the conventional one of research in psychiatry and psychosomatic medicine. Then, to the astonishment of a great many people, not least myself, we learned that Chester Carlson’s will bequeathed to the University of Virginia a million dollars for my research on paranormal phenomena. Not surprisingly, this provoked a controversy among the University administrators. I learned afterwards that some adversaries of my research had said that I could take the million dollars with me if I would leave the University. (No one said this directly to me.) The President of the University (Edgar Shannon) had not long before publicly cited an oft-quoted statement of Thomas Jefferson, written in 1820 as he was in the process of founding the university.

‘‘This institution,’’ Jefferson wrote, ‘‘will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind. For here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it’’ (Lipscomb & Bergh, 1903: 303). Even the most obdurate opponents of my research did not dare act against Jefferson’s precept. My supporters therefore prevailed, and the University accepted Chester Carlson’s bequest.

 John Dessauer, Chester Carlson, Joseph Wilson


Carlson's father, Olaf Adolph Carlson, had little formal education, but was described as "brilliant" by a relative. Carlson wrote of his mother, Ellen, that she "was looked up to by her sisters as one of the wisest."

Chester Carlson

About a year after I was born, my father was brought down with a severe case of tuberculosis. As if that were not enough, he also developed arthritis of the spine, the two together rapidly reducing him to a bent, emaciated wreck of a man who was to spend the greater part of each day for the next 26 years lying flat on his back, wracked by coughing spells and defeated by the world. This, plus the resulting poverty and isolation, was to have a profound effect on my development.
Work outside of school hours was a necessity at an early age, and with such time as I had I turned toward interests of my own devising, making things, experimenting, and planning for the future. I had read of Edison and other successful inventors, and the idea of making an invention appealed to me as one of the few available means to accomplish a change in one’s economic status, while at the same time bringing to focus my interest in technical things and making it possible to make a contribution to society as well."


When Olaf moved the family to Mexico for a seven-month period in 1910, in hopes of gaining riches through what Carlson described as "a crazy American land colonization scheme," Ellen contracted malaria. Because of his parents' illnesses, and the resulting poverty, Carlson worked to support his family from an early age; he began working odd jobs for money when he was eight. By the time he was thirteen, he would work for two or three hours before going to school, then go back to work after classes. By the time Carlson was in high school, he was his family's principal provider. His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 17, and his father died when Carlson was 27.


At Riverside Junior College, he combined working and going to classes in alternating six-week periods. He held three jobs while at Riverside, paying for a cheap one-bedroom apartment for himself and his father.

After three years at Riverside, Chester transferred to the California Institute of Technology, or Caltech. His tuition, $260 a year, exceeded his total earnings, and the workload prevented him from earning much money—though he did mow lawns and do odd jobs on weekends, and work at a cement factory in the summer.

By the time he graduated, he was $1,500 in debt. And this was the beginning of the Great Depression. He wrote letters seeking employment to 82 companies; none offered him a job.

The germ of the photocopying idea takes hold

Chester Carlson, to A. Dinsdale
"Well, I had a fascination with the graphic arts from childhood. One of the first things I wanted was a typewriter—even when I was in grammar school. Then, when I was in high school I liked chemistry and I got the idea of publishing a little magazine for amateur chemists. I also worked for a printer in my spare time and he sold me an old printing press which he had discarded. I paid for it by working for him. Then I started out to set my own type and print this little paper. I don't think I printed more than two issues, and they weren't much. However, this experience did impress me with the difficulty of getting words into hard copy and this, in turn, started me thinking about duplicating processes. I started a little inventor's notebook and I would jot down ideas from time to time."

After graduation Carlson accepted a job offer as a Research Engineer at the Bell Telephone Laboratories in New York. This turned out to be a rather dull routine job, so he asked for a transfer to the patent department because he thought he would have a chance to get in touch with a lot of new developments that were going on and find it more interesting. Thus, he became assistant to a patent attorney for two years, until he was laid off in 1933, during the Great Depression.

"In the course of my patent work, I frequently had need for copies of patent specifications and drawings, and there was no really convenient way of getting them at that time."

After a series of failed jobs he joined the electronics firm P. R. Mallory Company, founded by Philip Mallory.

Chester Carlson, to A. Dinsdale
"There was a gap of some years, but by 1935 I was more or less settled. I had my job, but I didn't think I was getting ahead very fast. I was just living from hand to mouth, you might say, and I had just got married. It was kind of a hard struggle. So I thought the possibility of making an invention might kill two birds with one stone; it would be a chance to do the world some good and also a chance to do myself some good."


In 1936, Carlson began to study law at night at New York Law School, receiving his LL.B. degree in 1939. He studied at the New York Public Library, copying longhand from law books there because he could not afford to buy them. The pains induced by this laborious copying hardened his resolve to find a way to build a true copying machine. He began supplementing his law studies with trips to the Public Library's science and technology department. It was there that he was inspired by a brief article, written by Hungarian physicist Pál Selényi in an obscure German scientific journal, that showed him a way to obtain his dream machine.

Selényi's article described a way of transmitting and printing facsimiles of printed images using a beam of directed ions directed onto a rotating drum of insulating material. The ions would create an electrostatic charge on the drum. A fine powder could then be dusted upon the drum; the powder would stick to the parts of the drum that had been charged, much as a balloon will stick to a static-charged stocking.

Having learned about the value of patents in his early career as a patent clerk and attorney, Carlson patented his developments every step along the way. He filed his first preliminary patent application on October 18, 1937.

Carlson's early experiments, conducted in his apartment kitchen, were smoky, smelly, and occasionally explosive. However, Selényi's article convinced Carlson to instead use light to 'remove' the static charge from a uniformly-ionized photoconductor. As no light would reflect from the black marks on the paper, those areas would remain charged on the photoconductor, and would therefore retain the fine powder. He could then transfer the powder to a fresh sheet of paper, resulting in a duplicate of the original.


On October 22, 1938, Carlson and Kornei his assistant had their historic breakthrough. Kornei wrote the words "10.-22.-38 ASTORIA." in India ink on a glass microscope slide. The Austrian prepared a zinc plate with a sulphur coating, darkened the room, rubbed the sulphur surface with a cotton handkerchief to apply an electrostatic charge, then laid the slide on the plate, exposing it to a bright, incandescent light. They removed the slide, sprinkled lycopodium powder to the sulphur surface, softly blew the excess away, and transferred the image to a sheet of wax paper. They heated the paper, softening the wax so the lycopodium would adhere to it, and had the world's first xerographic copy. After repeating the experiment to be sure it worked, Carlson celebrated by taking Kornei out for a modest lunch.

The road to Carlson's success—or that for xerography's success—was long and filled with failure. He was turned down for funding by more than twenty companies between 1939 and 1944, including International Business Machines (IBM).  On October 6, 1942, the Patent Office issued Carlson's patent on electrophotography.

It was 1944.  Carlson was close to giving up on getting his invention from a proof-of-concept to a usable product, but then, Russell W. Dayton, a young engineer from the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, visited the patent department at Mallory where Carlson worked. Dayton was fascinated by Carlson's invention. When Carlson was invited to Columbus to demonstrate his invention, Dayton's statement to the Battelle scientists and engineers present showed that he understood the importance of Carlson's invention:

"However crude this may seem, this is the first time any of you have seen a reproduction made without any chemical reaction and a dry process."

Battelle took a risk on Carlson's invention.  By the Autumn of 1945, Battelle agreed to act as Carlson's agent for his patents, pay for further research, and develop the idea. The commercial breakthrough came when John Dessauer, chief of research at the Haloid Company, read an article about Carlson's invention. Haloid, a manufacturer of photographic paper, was looking for a way out of the shadow of its Rochester, New York, neighbour, Eastman Kodak. Through previous acquisitions, Haloid was already in the duplicating-machine business; Dessauer thought that electrophotography might allow Haloid to expand into a new field that Kodak did not dominate.

In December 1946, Battelle, Carlson, and Haloid signed the first agreement to license electrophotography for a commercial product. It was a risk for them all.  Battelle was concerned by Haloid's relatively small size, and Haloid had concerns about electrophotography's viability.  During this period, Battelle conducted most of the basic research into electrophotography, while Haloid concentrated on trying to make a commercial product out of the results.

On October 22, 1948, ten years to the day after that first microscope slide was copied, the Haloid Company made the first public announcement of xerography.  The term xerography was formed by combining the Greek words xeros ("dry") and graphein ("writing")


XeroX Model A Copier

In 1949, it shipped the first commercial photocopier: the XeroX Model A Copier, known inside the company as the "Ox Box." The Model A was difficult to use, requiring thirty-nine steps to make a copy, as the process was mostly manual.  After the Model A, Haloid released a number of xerographic copiers to the market, but none yet particularly easy to use.

The first device recognizable as a modern photocopier was the Xerox 914. Although large and crude by modern standards, it allowed an operator to place an original on a sheet of glass, press a button, and receive a copy on plain paper. In 1961, because of the success of the Xerox 914, the company changed its name to Xerox Corporation.

Chester F. Carlson, Inventor of Xerography - A biography," A. Dinsdale, Photographic Science and Engineering, vol. 7, 1963,
In 1946 The Haloid Company sold $6,750,000 worth of photographic and photocopy paper and machines for a net profit of $101,000. By 1961, despite the "well-known facts of economic life," Carlson?s inventions had transformed The Haloid Company into the Xerox Corporation, with total sales of $59,533,000 and profits of $5,323,000. And the rate of growth is indicated by the figures for the first half of 1962: total sales, $47,116,089; net profit, $5,658,165.

Xerox 914

For Carlson, the commercial success of the Xerox 914 was the culmination of his life's work: a device that could quickly and cheaply make an exact copy of an existing document. After the 914 went into production, Carlson's involvement with Xerox declined as he began pursuing his philanthropic interests.

In 1965, at the commemoration of the 175th anniversary of the U.S. patent system, Chester gave some of his original equipment, as well as the first xerographic print, to the Smithsonian Institution, where it is on display

Chester F. Carlson
I am extremely satisfied with the way everything has turned out. There were times when I felt impatient. You see, 15 years elapsed from the time I started working on xerography and the time the first piece of commercial equipment went on the market. And for exactly ten of those years I was working on my own, on my own limited resources.


In the spring of 1968, while on vacation in the Bahamas, Carlson had his first heart attack. He was gravely ill, but hid this from his wife, embarking on a number of unexpected household improvements and concealing his doctor's visits.


On September 19, 1968, Carlson died of a heart attack in the Festival Theatre, on West 57th Street in New York City, while watching the film He Who Rides a Tiger. Dorris arranged a small service in New York City; Xerox held a much larger service in the corporate auditorium in Rochester on September 26, 1968.

For five years after Chester Carlson’s death, Dorris Carlson gave the Division of Personality Studies at the University of Virginia annual donations. This enabled them to continue supporting Gaither Pratt and two other parapsychologists, Rex Stanford and John Palmer. The publications of these three researchers, along with the work by Dr Ian Stevenson undertook, provided an important chapter in the history of parapsychology and left us a legacy of observations of quite unparalleled importance in the area of past lives and reincarnation.

Chester F. Carlson, Inventor of Xerography - A biography," A. Dinsdale, Photographic Science and Engineering, vol. 7, 1963,
Chester F. Carlson describes the process that led to the solution of a problem in his invention of xerography… he says:
"With the problem so sharply defined, the solution came almost as an intuitive flash."

Inspiration – a sign of the spiritually blessed - we reap what we sow.


David Owen -  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 (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2004)


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