The Origin Of Things: The biggest irony of all time

Intro note: I run a podcast called The Origin of Things. It’s a short-format show where each episode talks about the origin of a certain brand. But I reveal the name of the brand (and often, the category!) only at the very end. I’m putting up the scripts for each episode on Medium as well. The Spotify & YouTube (audio only) links are provided below, if you’d like to listen!

This story involves two companies.

It also involves one of the biggest ironies of all time.

The year was 1938. Chester Carlson would invent something that, in a weird way, would change the way we live today. Chester was a physicist.

“Work outside of school hours was a necessity at an early age”, Chester would say. “and with such time as I had I turned toward interests of my own devising, making things, experimenting, and planning for the future. I had read of Thomas Alva Edison and other successful inventors, and the idea of making an invention appealed to me as one of the few available means to accomplish a change in one’s economic status, while at the same time bringing to focus my interest in technical things and making it possible to make a contribution to society as well.”

It was when working in publishing while in High School that he was inspired to create the invention that would, eventually, change everything — including how you’re probably listening to this podcast.

In 1936, Chester, being poor, studied at the New York Public Library while working towards his Law degree. It was there that he was inspired by an article, written by Hungarian physicist Pál Selényi in an obscure German scientific journal, that showed him a way to obtain his dream machine — quoting Wikipedia.

Wikipedia continues: Chester’s early experiments, conducted in his apartment kitchen, were smoky, smelly, and occasionally explosive. His experiments frustrated his wife, who normally had to help put out fires… Yes, there were fires. (A few years later though, it would be the stock market that was on fire!). Chester was working on a technique called electrophotography — no no you smart alecs, this was not a precursor to digital photography… Well, at least not directly.

Long story short, Chester’s experiment finally became a success, and he signed an agreement with a company called The Haloid Photographic Company whose founder Joseph, saw the commercial value of Chester’s experiment. One technical genius, and one commercial genius. Just the combination that was needed, and the Haloid company became very very famous. Haloid, by the way, was seeking out inventions like Chester’s — because it was tired of being in the shadow of its more famous neighbour — a certain Eastman Kodak.

The company became incredibly successful, attracting some very smart minds. Some of these smart minds got together to form a division of the company focused on innovations called PARC — the Palo Alto Research Center. Now, the 70s in Silicon Valley was a hotbed of innovation and what we Indians would call jugaad… And PARC played its part, inventing technologies like laser printing, WYSIWYG text editors (predecessors to things like MS Word) and the Ethernet. It also created a certain something else… which they didn’t pay too much attention to, and that’s… probably the biggest mistake they ever made. In fact, I’d say it was the biggest mistake any company had ever made.

Yeah. That’s a big claim isn’t it?

The biggest mistake any company had ever made.

Also, one of the biggest ironies of all time.

So what was it?

You see, the engineers at PARC created a computer. Not just any computer — after all, they’d been around in some shape or form since the 1950s — but this computer, called the Alto — had something called a Graphical User Interface or GUI. It could be controlled by a handheld device that would move a little arrow on the screen. It was, for all practical purposes, a fairly practical personal computer.

Now, I know there are some of you who know where this is going. You say “Oh yeah, Chuck — you think you’re so damn smart trying to hide the fact that this company that used Chester’s invention and became rich, is actually Xerox, and the GUI thing is something they just randomly showed Steve Jobs who stole the idea and made the Apple Lisa and then the famous Mac and then it became the world’s first trillion dollar company and that’s the biggest mistake that any company ever made”.

Well, you got me. There’s really nothing more to reveal now that you’ve wormed it out of me. The company is, indeed, Xerox. You see, the Haloid Photography Company, as it was called first, wanted a less clunky name for Chester’s invention than ‘electrophotography’ so they invented the term ‘xerography’ from two Greek roots meaning “dry writing”. Haloid changed its name to Haloid Xerox in 1958 and then Xerox Corporation in 1961.

Later, Xerox would create the Xerox PARC lab which yes, pioneered the GUI and laser printer and all those other things but Steve Jobs didn’t really steal the idea as much as… Let’s just say — got inspired by it. Several people knew of the GUI and its capability well before Jobs had even visited the factory. But therein lied the mistake not just of Xerox but all the others who knew of this invention! For the company that saw the commercial value in Chester Carlson’s invention of copying the contents on a paper could not see the commercial value of having a relatively small, easy to use computer. Steve Jobs did, gleefully took the idea which his partner Steve Wozniak improved on, and the rest is history. Again, a technical genius and a commercial one. This time, another era, another product, another company.

And therein really lies one of the biggest ironies in all of business history: The world’s greatest copiers got their greatest idea… Copied.

Hmm. Wonder what Chester would have made of this.



Deepak “Chuck” Gopalakrishnan

Content handyman. Mumbai. Rock+metal fiend. Cold water aficionado. The Origin Of Things, Simblified, Getting Meta, Things of Internet & a few other experiments.