‘ Look at this Mr Gutenberg’—C. Lester Walker on an invention which may have rivalled the photocopier.

Chester Carlson (thanks Xerox)

‘ Who invented the photocopier ?’ is a question that sometimes comes up in pub quizzes. The answer, of course, is Chester Carlson, an American inventor whose persistence over decades made him a multimillionaire. This is not the place to survey Carlson’s brilliant idea, which transformed businesses all over the world. Instead, let’s  examine a possible rival to xerography, as Carlson’s invention came to be called. This was ‘ electronographic ‘ or ‘ ghost printing, whose origins go back further than xerography.

We at Jot HQ must confess that electronography is a new term for us. But let the American journalist C. Lester Walker, who tried to explain the process in an article for Harper’s Magazine in July 1948, an extract from which we found typed up in our archives. Up to now, Walker begins, printing has been the dominant method of creating multiple copies of a text. But printing involves the application of pressure. With electronography:

…There will be no contact between the printing surface and the paper. Instead, a stream of electrons will supply the force needed to make the ‘ impression’.

Walker then goes on to tell us how this radical new process was discovered. It was all down to a boffin in the printing industry, William C. Huebner, who in 1924 discovered the process by ‘accident’.

He was called in by a printing house, which was doing a big-sheet label job, to help them stop what the printers called ‘ off-setting’…This day solid reds were offsetting badly, and Huebner was inspecting the stacked sheets by ‘ lift fanning’ the corners, when suddenly he saw something his eyes refused to believe. When he lift fanned  (i.e.) ruffled the corners, the off-setting increased. That is, the red on the back of a sheet strengthened and deepened.

Huebner said to a pressman, ‘ You, look. Am I seeing things? The pressman said no—he thought he saw it too. Wondering if the offsetting could possibly be due to static electricity, Huebner arranged for a ‘ grounding’ of the press. The offsetting was checked. Then the static was pulling ink off one sheet ad depositing it on another ?

Huebner’s inventor’s mind started whirring. Before the end of that day, he had said, he had proved to himself that statically charged surfaces would make printing jump a gap as much as an inch wide. Nowadays he demonstrates this phenomenon to sceptics by rubbing by rubbing a sheet of celluloid with a handkerchief, laying a sheet of yellow copy paper over the celluloid, and then moving an ink-wetted artist’s paint brush around above. Ink flies from the brush to the paper two or three inches through space…

Walker goes on to explain how the process actually ‘ prints ‘:

There is an inking cylinder, a cylinder on which is the curved plate of type and a cylinder around the paper travels. The first cylinder touches the second  and inks the type. But as the type cylinder and the paper cylinder rotate, they never touch. Between then  stands permanently a narrow gap—usually from one to three thousands of an inch. Inside the paper-carrying cylinder is a gadget with electrodes, which runs the cylinder’s length and lies directly opposite the type cylinder outside. When current is turned on , this gadget produces a stream of electrons which pull the ink off the type cylinder and onto the paper. Another electrical circuit has already ionized and charged the ink negatively and charged the paper surface positively. When the machine is in operation, it has been observed, the ink on the type cylinder actually bulges towards the paper surface , and the paper surface moves towards the inked type cylinder. But turn off the ionizing current  and keep the press running and mo print occurs, because no pressure content is present anywhere.

Voltage controls the ink impression. If the type impression on the paper is faint, for instance, for instance, one merely steps up the amount of voltage, so as to pull all the ink of the type cylinder. So there is never any wearing of type or plate here because nothing but the inking rollers ever touch the type…’

The superiority of this new process over traditional printing, Walker claims, is impressive. It can print two sides of the sheet simultaneously and with speed. A piece of offset printing that would take two hundred hours to complete is reduced to six. The machines were already on the market at a third of the price of a traditional press and a new newspaper in Mexico City is being set up with them.

As the machines were not exactly ‘printing’ a new name was needed. Huebner came up with Electro-migratetics and he insisted that a sheet printed using this method was ‘ migrated’ rather than printed..

Walker concludes his article by predicting that if the electro-graphic press was ‘ wholly successful’ it would ‘ wipe printing out our speech’., making the word obsolete.

But old fashioned printing using type that made contact with paper remained dominant. Why ? Possibly because technical problems with the production of static electricity made the process unreliable. Meanwhile, Carlson’s xerography was winning admirers all over the USA. Huebner was aware of his rival’s invention because in his patent –Process and apparatus for electronographic printing’– registered on May 3 1945, Carlson, among others, is cited. On October 6 1942 the patent that would announce the arrival of photocopying was issued. Four years later Carlson signed an agreement with Haloid to produce the first machine, which eventually appeared on the market in 1949. This was a very crude prototype which was slow and difficult to operate. But it was obviously going somewhere, in contrast to Huebner’s machine, which seemingly was going nowhere….

R. M. Healey. 

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