Isaac Newton may have come up with his laws of motion spontaneously after being bonked on the head by an apple, but most scientists pursue inventions that stand on the horizon for decades or centuries, with flocks of tinkerers racing researchers to the patent office. The initial breakthrough in plain-paper copying belonged to Chester Carlson, an industrial engineer and part-time patent attorney who made up his mind as a teenager to become a rich inventor, preferably by coming up with an alternative to carbon paper and mimeograph machines. In 1937, he conceived of a method that would fuse the principles of photography and the properties of electricity. In 1938, he and an assistant made a crude copy using the method, but it took two decades for the small company Haloid (later renamed Haloid Xerox) to realize Carlson's vision of a freestanding, easy-to-use office copier, and before that happened, a few companies raided Carlson's patents and came up with their own workable but less-ingenious machines.
David Owen's Copies In Seconds details the frustrating process of developing an invention, from concept to machine-work to telling the marketing department to print up brochures. Owen gets too wrapped up in the technical problems of copying, such as deciding what will work as a toner, but he captures the infectious faith and enthusiasm of the engineers who, believing Carlson was on to something, committed themselves to figuring out how to make it happen.
Copies In Seconds opens with a long, funny essay about Owen's personal experience with copying machines, building to a wondering pause over his son's generation, which has grown up with near-instant duplication and no-hassle document revision. Owen then jumps back to the long, arduous history of copying, before introducing the unassuming Carlson. The best (and too brief) parts of the book come at the end, when Owen describes how xerography succeeded beyond Carlson's wildest expectations. From the beginning, companies complained that their Xerox machine malfunctioned half the time, but they still responded by buying backup machines rather than giving up quick, inexpensive copies. Owen uses this example to contend that the value of an invention isn't in the original idea, but in the way it takes on a life of its own once users get their hands on it. Carlson wanted to make his fortune with a simple, useful device, but he inadvertently changed the way people treat information that's cheap and easy to distribute.