Astoria street co named after Xerox co founder
The inventor of one of the most successful products in the 20th century experimented in and made a major breakthrough at a makeshift lab in Astoria.
On October 22, 1938, Chester Carlson, a physicist and patent lawyer who invented the process of electrophotography, successfully photocopied the words “10.-22.-38 ASTORIA” for the first time using his new technology.
He later sold the invention to what would become the Xerox Corporation, and paved the way for the first commercial copy machine.
On Friday, nearly 81 years to the day of the breakthrough, Councilman Costa Constantinides, along with representatives from Xerox and the Carlson family, unveiled “Chester Carlson Way” at the corner of 37th Street and Broadway in Astoria.
Though the building where he experimented with xerography was later torn down, the street co-naming pays tribute to the man who revolutionized photocopying.
“The heart of what he’s done will always remain here,” Constantinides said. “We can always celebrate that that revolution started right here in Astoria.”
Born in Seattle to first-generation Americans of Swedish descent, Carlson learned to care for his family at a young age because both of his parents were often sick.
When he was an infant, Carlson’s father contracted tuberculosis and suffered from arthritis of the spine. Carlson worked odd jobs for money as early as eight years old.
The family moved all across the country, Constantinides said, including a stay in Mexico, where his mother contracted malaria. His mother died when Carlson was 17, and his father died when he was 27 years old.
“Chester had to shoulder the burden of putting food on his family’s table, while putting himself through school,” Constantinides said.
Carlson had always maintained an interest in graphic arts and printing. After graduating from the California Institute of Technology with a degree in physics, he moved to New York City to work for Bell Telephone Laboratories as a research engineer.
After a year, he transferred to the patent department and became an assistant to a patent attorney. In 1936, Carlson began studying law at night at New York Law School.
According to reports, he would study at the New York Public Library and copied longhand from law textbooks because he couldn’t afford to buy them. He then began experimenting with making photocopies with textbooks, Constantinides said.
But the experiments in his apartment kitchen were becoming difficult and dangerous. Carlson tried melting pure crystalline sulfur over a flame in his kitchen stove, which resulted in frequent fires. According to reports, the sulfur fires often filled his building with the smell of rotten eggs.
Later, Carlson’s wife Dorris convinced him to conduct his experiments somewhere else. As a result, Carlson rented a room on the second floor of a house owned by his mother-in-law at 32-05 37th Street in Astoria, where he made a successful photocopy in 1938.
His process of electrophotography did not require liquid chemicals, which Constantinides said was “revolutionary.”
As Carlson continued to refine his invention, which he patented in 1942, he had trouble selling it to companies. He was reportedly turned down by more than 20 companies between 1939 and 1944, including unsuccessful attempts to sell it to IBM.
In 1946, the Rochester-based photo company Haloid, which later became Xerox, signed an agreement to develop Carlson’s invention into a commercial product. A year later, Carlson became a consultant to Xerox and moved with Dorris to the Rochester area.
Finally in 1959, after two decades of fine-tuning, the company released the Xerox 914, the first commercial photocopier, which Constantinides called “one of the most successful products of its era.”
By the end of 1961, Xerox had reportedly made almost $60 million in revenue due to the 914’s popularity.
“Xerox arguably kick-started the 20th century technology boom with a process that started right here in our native Astoria,” Constantinides said.
Nine years later, with the success of the 914 and other products, Xerox opened the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in what is now Silicon Valley. PARC developed computing technologies including graphical user interface (GUI), laser printing and Ethernet.
The research center also created the Xerox Alto, a mini-computer that is considered one of the first personal computers. It had a screen, mouse-like pointing device and a QWERTY-type keyboard.
Although the product wasn’t sold commercially, it influenced Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who made a deal with Xerox to look at the technology. Jobs later incorporated some of the technology into the Apple Lisa, which was followed by the Macintosh in 1984.
“It’s not a stretch to say all of our phones, our computers and the networks that connect them all have a root in this experiment,” Constantinides said.
Carlson remained a consultant at Xerox until his death in 1968.
Tracey Koziol, senior vice president of global offerings at Xerox Corporations, said at Friday’s street co-naming ceremony that Carlson was the “original Xerox innovator.”
He recognized a problem that existed in his day-to-day life, she said, and set out to invent a solution.
“That entrepreneurial, innovative spirit that Mr. Carlson exhibited is something that has powered Xerox since day one,” Koziol said. “We continue to try to live up to his legacy.”
She also credited the company’s original leaders for taking the risk on Carlson’s technology when no one else would. She said they demonstrated “extraordinary vision” to see the potential of the invention when others saw “only hazards.”
“That risk more than paid off, the invention changed the course of history,” Koziol said. “It was really the Internet of its time, and it revolutionized business as we know it.”
Jeffrey Diedon, whose grandfather Roy Carlson was Chester’s cousin, was among the family members who flew from California to attend the street co-naming ceremony.
He said his family has known about Carlson’s story “forever.” He and his wife even visited the Xerox archives in Rochester two years ago and saw much of the early memorabilia, as well as the connection to PARC.
“It’s just a source of family pride,” Diedon said.
Diedon noted that his grandfather, Roy, was close to Chester when they were boys. Roy provided some help financially when Chester and needed help along the process.
Roy Carlson was a well-known engineer, Diedon said, who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos and at the University of California Berkeley. He was a pioneer in concrete dam technology and invented strain meters and stress meters.
He later went on to lecture and teach at both Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
“It’s funny, none of the rest of us turned into inventors,” he said. “But the two of them were.”
Diedon added that while he never met his first cousin twice removed –– Carlson died when Diedon was just a boy –– he heard a lot about his story.
“Now to have it commemorated,” he said, “we think it’s really awesome.”