Xerox’s Inspirational Carlson and Wilson

I recently finished reading Xerox: American Samurai, an out-of-print business case study of sorts that tells the story of Xerox from a mid-1980’s (the book was published in 1986), decidedly American perspective of worrying how domestic industry would compete with the growing influence and capability of Asia, and Japan in particular. It’s a very entertaining read, something of a more business-side Soul of a New Machine: the core of the narrative is the engineering, marketing, manufacturing, and organizational efforts that brought about Xerox’s 10 Series copiers to market starting in 1982 (some of which appear to still be supported and in service!), which were to be Xerox’s response to the accelerating success of its Japanese competitors.  Along the way, the book weaves a story encompassing Xerox’s early days developing and commercializing electrophotography, its fantastic success in the late 1950’s and 1960’s, its “lost decade” in the 1970’s where innovation stagnated and the business began to fray, and finally its then-in-progress rejuvenation into the early 1980’s as Xerox slimmed down and refactored its business and engineering practices to compete effectively.

It’s a great story, but I’m not writing a book review.  Most striking about the book was the glimpse provided of Chester Carlson, the inventor of electrophotography, and Joseph C. Wilson, the co-founder of Xerox (née The Haloid Photographic Company).  As far as I can tell, these men were forces of nature unto themselves, and possessed an array of values and principles that I find inspirational.  Indeed, the book mentions more than once that part of what held Xerox together, especially in the bad years, was the legacy of its progenitors, Wilson and Carlson.

To illustrate, it would be best if I simply quoted from the book; here, from pages 54-56 (bold emphasis mine):

…Wilson never liked it when people referred to Xerox during its spectacular growth years as a Cinderella story.  The company earned its success, he said.  The only magic was the magic of hard work.

As a boy, Wilson grew up in the shadow of Kodak’s largest manufacturing facility in Rochester–Kodak Park.  His dream was to build a company as great as George Eastman’s.  He didn’t want to make a quick killing and then retire with his riches, he wanted his company to have an impact on the world. He wanted to make his company his life’s work, just as Eastman had done.

Chester Carlson and the 914 copier helped Wilson realize his dream. Carlson, the investor of xerography, filed his first patent in 1937, calling his discovery electrophotography.  His first successful image was made in 1938.  Over the next nine years he tried to sell his idea to more than twenty companies, including RCA, Remington Rand, General Electric, Kodak, and IBM.  They all turned him down, wondering why anyone would need a machine to do something you could do with carbon paper.

Although Carlson was often frustrated by the lack of interest in his invention, he never quit.  Sometimes he put his idea and equipment on the shelf for a few months, but soon the enthusiasm would return.  He scraped together a few hundred dollars in 1939, a large sum during the Depression, and had a prototype of an automatic copier built by a model shop in New York.  It didn’t work.  Another model maker got it working, briefly, but soon the war diverted expert machinists to more urgent tasks.  Carlson went back to demonstrating his process with manual plates.  Finally, in 1944, Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio, signed a royalty-sharing agreement with him and began to develop the process.  A short time later, John Dessauer, Haloid’s director of research, showed Joe Wilson a technical article on Carlson’s electrophotography in Radio News. Haloid made the initial contacts with Battelle, and in 1947, it signed an agreement with Battelle and began funding research.  With the help of a professor from Ohio State University, the term “xerography,” Greek for “dry writing,” was coined.

The early manual copying process was excruciatingly slow, almost like developing a photographic print.  An early Haloid brochure describes Thirty-Nine Steps for making good copies on its first commercial copier, the Model A Xerox, which was sometimes called the Ox Box.  The best operators took two to three minutes to make a print, a long way from Carlson’s vision of an automatic machine.  Still, Wilson and Haloid pressed on.  Over the next thirteen years, Wilson committed more money than his company made to developing the process.

Carlson and Wilson both made fortunes on xerography; Carlson earned more than $200 million, Wilson more than $100 million. Their backgrounds and personalities were different, but both of them were reflective men who were concerned with more than money and business.  Carlson was a quiet, shy man from a poor family who struggled to put himself through college and never knew material comfort until late in life when the royalties from xerography finally started to arrive.  During the early years at Haloid, Dessauer once asked him out to lunch.  Carlson declined because he couldn’t afford to reciprocate.  When he made his great breakthrough in xerography he was working days in a patent office, going to law school at night, and doing his experiments on weekends.  He always felt uncomfortable in large groups and avoided public involvement in causes, although he anonymously donated millions of dollars to many of them.

Carlson was never on the regular Xerox payroll, though Wilson made several offers.  Instead, he preferred the independence of working as a consultant.  He died in 1968, at the age of sixty-two, of a heart attack.  A year before his death his wife asked him if he had any unfulfilled desires.  “Just one,” he said. “I would like to die a poor man.”  When he died he had given away more than $150 million. U Thant, secretary-general of the United Nations, sent this tribute to Carlson’s memorial service in honor of his substantial financial contributions: “His concern for the future of the human situation was genuine, and his dedication to the principles of the United Nations was profound.”

Wilson was a graduate of the Harvard Business School.  His father was president of Haloid before him and his grandfather had served as mayor of Rochester.  Unlike Carlson, Wilson was an outgoing person.  His speeches were as likely to contain quotes from Byron and Dostoyevski as they were to contain the latest earnings and revenue numbers.  Even after the company became successful, he would frequently lunch on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at his desk so he could catch up on his reading.  He welcomes involvement in community affairs, often speaking about the obligation of successful enterprises to contribute to society.   Wilson died in 1971, at the age of sixty-one, of a heart attack, while having lunch with the governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller.  A frayed, blue index card that he had carried since the early days of his career was found in his wallet.  It summarized his goals: “To be a whole man; to attain serenity through the creation of a family life of uncommon richness; through leadership of a business which brings happiness to its workers, serves well its customers and brings prosperity to its owners; by aiding a society threatened by fratricidal division to gain unity.”

The tenacity, dedication, and grounding principles of these individuals are remarkable, both on spec and compared to the fluff usually offered to entrepreneurs and business owners like myself as examples of success.  Carlson as the inventor and technologist and Wilson as the investor and clueful technical entrepreneur and executive would appear to be far better options.

For those that are interested, it looks like there are at least two other books specifically about Carlson and Wilson, at least in connection with their development of electrophotography and association with Xerox.