This Week In History: Making Copies and Giant Brains

First xerographic copy - 10-22-38 ASTORIA. Source: Wikipedia

First xerographic copy, 1938. Source: Wikipedia

October 6, 1942

Chester Carlson received a patent for electrophotography which he invented four years earlier.  Searching for a buyer for his invention between 1939 and 1944, Carlson was turned down by more than 20 companies, including IbM, GE, Eastman Kodak and RCA. In 1946, Haloid, a small photo-paper maker in Rochester, New York, agreed to license electrophotography.  Haloid changed the name of the technology to xerography in 1948 and, in 1961, changed the name of the company to Xerox.  In 1960, when the company shipped the first cheap and convenient office copier (the 914), there were predictions that it may sell 5,000 units in 3 years, but by the end of 1962, 10,000 units have been sold.

In 1955, four years before the introduction of the 914, the world made about 20 million copies, almost all of them by non-xerographic means; in 1964, five years after the introduction of the 914, it made nine and a half billion, almost all xerographically. Five hundred and fifty billion in 1984. Seven hundred billion in 1985. And in 2004, the world produced more than three trillion xerographic copies.

Malcolm Gladwell wrote in “The Social Life of Paper” in 2002:  “This is one of the great puzzles of the modern workplace. Computer technology was supposed to replace paper. But that hasn’t happened. Every country in the Western world uses more paper today, on a per-capita basis, than it did ten years ago. The consumption of uncoated free-sheet paper, for instance—the most common kind of office paper—rose almost fifteen per cent in the United States between 1995 and 2000.”

In the same year, Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper published The Myth of the Paperless Office: “The paperless office is a myth not because people fail to achieve their goals, but because they know too well that their goals cannot be achieved without paper. This held true over thirty years ago when the idea of the paperless office first gained some prominence, and it holds true today at the start of the twenty-first century.”

Today, the average office worker uses 10,000 sheets of copy paper every year. Collectively, that’s 4 million tons of copy paper used in one year in the U.S. alone.

October 7, 1806

Ralph Wedgwood received the first patent for carbon paper. Wedgwood, like his Italian contemporary and fellow carbon paper inventor Pellegrino Turri, was trying to help blind people write, the “black paper” being a substitute for ink.

As late as 1955, Chester Carlson was still making carbon copies of his own letters.

October 8, 1996

ENIACstamp50U.S. Postal Service issued a new stamp commemorating the 50th birthday of ENIAC, the first large-scale, electronic digital computer and 50 years of computer technology. This was the first U.S. Stamp dedication to be broadcast live over the InterNet’s MBONE. Stamp collectors in 6 countries were able to watch and listen in real time.

The stamp shows an image of a brain partially covered by small blocs that contain parts of circuit boards and binary code. The image encapsulates well the conviction that computers are giant brains, articulated in 1949 by Edmund Berkeley in his book, Giant Brains or Machines that Think: “Recently there have been a good deal of news about strange giant machines that can handle information with vast speed and skill….These machines are similar to what a brain would be if it were made of hardware and wire instead of flesh and nerves… A machine can handle information; it can calculate, conclude, and choose; it can perform reasonable operations with information. A machine, therefore, can think.” Thirty years later, Marvin Minsky famously stated: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”

To which Joseph Weizenbaum replied: “What do these people actually mean when they shout that man is a machine (and a brain a ‘meat machine’)? It is… that human beings are ‘computable,’ that they are not distinct from other objects in the world… all this is not the fault of the computer. Guilt cannot be attributed to computers. But computers enable fantasies, many of them wonderful, but also those of people whose compulsion to play God overwhelms their ability to fathom the consequences of their attempt to turn their nightmares into reality. I recall, in this connection, a debate I once had with Herbert Simon. Perhaps frustrated by my attitudes, he shouted: ‘Knowledge is better than ignorance!’ (I think he thought he had me there). I replied:  ‘Yes! But not at any price.’”

But Weizenbaum was in a small and ever-decreasing minority. In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2045, machine intelligence may equal or surpass the collective intelligence of all human beings on Earth.

October 11, 1979

The Nobel Prize in Medicine is awarded to Allan M. Cormack and Godfrey N. Hounsfield for the “development of computer assisted tomography”. About 80 million CT scans are currently performed annually in the U.S., up from 3 million in 1980.

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