History of Document Copying

There has been a need for copying documents since the beginning of Earth’s written history. Until the late 1700s, the only way to copy an original document was by hand and pen.

The very first forms of copying involved special papers and ink. James Watt invented a method of copying that used specially formulated ink to physically transfer ink from the original document to another piece of paper using moisture and a press. This method was widely used from the late 1780s to the 1880s.

Perhaps the most clever contraption used to mechanically copy documents was the polygraph. You have probably seen this device in period movies. It is a machine that allowed the author of the original document to make a second copy using a second pen parallel to the one held by the author. Thomas Jefferson was well known for using a polygraph. The polygraph wasn’t very successful, probably because it needed constant adjustment.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that inventors like Georgi Nadjakov and Chester Carlson (Xerox) invented true copying methods using electric polarization and electrophotography.

Chester Carlson was a patent attorney that had to reproduce a lot of legal documents. His arthritis inspired him to find a better way. He started by experimenting with photoconductivity which he initially dubbed “electrophotography”. His first successful “xerox” was made in 1938. He spent the next 5 years being turned down by over 20 companies that didn’t believe there was a market for copy machines. Among these companies included IBM and General Electric.

In 1944, he finally convinced a non-profit organization to help him research the “electrophotography” process. 3 years later, the company Haloid contacted the organization in hopes of using the technology to create the first commercially viable copy machine. Haloid and Carlson opted for a trendier Greek name “xerography” which means “dry writing”. Haloid changed its name to Xerox Corporation and introduced the first Xerox machine in 1949.

Xerox became so synonymous with copying that the act of copying documents was known to many as “xeroxing”. Xerox Corporation is famously known for using legal means to prevent the term from becoming genericized since this threatened their trademark status.

Digital technology is phasing out older analog copy machines. Today’s copiers are basically a combination of scanner and laser printer. This design allows documents to be enhanced and to “build jobs” before the function of printing them. These machines are also highly integrated with computer systems and networks which allow the transfer of documents from copier to email inboxes and file servers.