On this date in 1942 Chester F. Carlson (1906-1968) received a patent for his invention, electrophotography. His discovery was a giant leap in the history of publishing. For centuries making a copy of single document was arduous and time-consuming. Electrophotography, or xerography as it came to be called, made this process fast and easy.
Unlike previous wet copy processes, Carlson’s process was “dry.” First an electrostatic image of the original document was created on a rotating metal drum; then, with the help of toner – powdered ink – a copy was transferred to a piece of paper and the print was sealed in place by heat (1).
To differentiate the name of his invention – electrophotography – from print photography, Carlson searched for new term. He settled first on the word xerography from the Greek xeros (meaning “dry”) and graphein (meaning “writing”). Xerography later became xerox because of Carlson’s admiration for the name Kodak, the iconic American photography company. Carlson especially liked the fact that the name Kodak was nearly a palindrome (a word that is spelled the same frontwards and backwards). Adding an “x” at the end of his invention’s name, Carlson reasoned, would give it the same memorable ring. Thus, xerox, the word that would become synonymous with copy duplication, was born (2).
Today’s Challenge: Copywork, Not Copy Cat
Long before Xerox, copying by hand – or copywork – was a popular method of teaching writing in America. As children we learn to talk, at least in part, by imitating others, so the rationale behind copywork is that we can also learn to write by imitating others.
In their article on copywork’s historic roots, Brett and Kate McKay trace how many great American writers like Robert Louis Stevenson, Benjamin Franklin, and Jack London used copywork to learn their craft. They explained London’s process as follows:
. . . London most admired the style of Rudyard Kipling. For hours at a time, and days on end, he would make it his assignment to copy page after page of Kipling’s works in longhand. Through such feverish effort, he hoped to absorb his hero’s rhythmic musicality and energetic cadence, along with the master’s ability to produce what one contemporary critic called “throat-grabbing phrase” (3).
By zeroing in and copying the words, phrases, and clauses of a single exemplary model, you discover elements of style you wouldn’t otherwise notice. Like a cook who samples and dissects the dishes of a master chef, you become both inspired to produce your own recipes and equipped to combine the ingredients more artfully. What is a short passage of published writing that you admire for its rhetorical craft, the kind of passage that might be held up as an exemplary model for writers? Select a published passage of at least six sentences, and, following the principles of copywork, reproduce the writing verbatim — that’s Latin for “word for word.” Make sure to write the author’s name and title of the work your passage is from at the top of your paper. The purpose here is not to plagiarize; rather, it’s to use our pens to help us better pay better attention as we read and write. (Common Core Reading 1 – Close Reading).
Quotation of the Day: The oldest copier invented by people is language, the device by which an idea of yours becomes an idea of mine. We are distinct from chimpanzees because speech, through its irrepressible power of reproduction, multiplied our thoughts into thinking. The second great copying machine was writing. When the Sumerians transposed spoken words into stylus marks on clay tablets, they exponentially extended the human network that language had created. Writing freed copying from the chain of living contact. It made thinking permanent, portable, and endlessly reproducible. -David Owen
2- Owen, David. Copies in Seconds: How a Lone Inventor and an Unknown Company Created the Biggest Communication Breakthrough Since Gutenberg. New York: Simon and Shuster, 2008: 146.