Understanding Photocopying: The Process Demystified

In a groundbreaking 1935 essay titled “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” German philosopher Walter Benjamin emphasized the liberation of art through mechanical reproduction. While Benjamin’s focus was on the impact of mass reproduction on art in a capitalist society, one cannot help but draw parallels to the effects of photocopying on the production and availability of textual material in the modern era.

Photocopying, in its broadest sense, involves the duplication of content using light and various techniques. However, when people colloquially refer to “photocopying,” they typically mean xerography—the most common and widely recognized form of photocopying. The terms “xerography” and “Xerox” derive from the Greek word “xero,” meaning “dry.” This reflects the fact that xerography is a dry photocopying method that does not require messy liquid chemicals. Today, xerographic machines are used worldwide to reproduce printed material quickly and affordably.

The process of xerography involves several key elements. Firstly, there is the photoconductive surface, which is coated with a material that conducts electricity when exposed to light but blocks it in the dark. This surface is negatively charged by a thin wire with a high voltage positioned next to it.

Next, the paper to be copied is illuminated with a bright light. The dark parts of the paper, where something is printed, do not reflect the light, while the unmarked parts do. Lenses and mirrors carry this reflected light to the photoconductive surface. The areas where the light falls cause the photoconducting material to become conductive, allowing the surface’s electrons to dissipate downwards. The parts that remain negatively charged at the end of this step correspond to the printed areas on the paper.

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Subsequently, a powdery substance called toner, which is positively charged, is applied to the surface. The toner settles where negative charge persists, and the surface then transfers the toner’s pattern to a sheet of paper. The paper has a stronger negative charge that causes the toner to adhere to it. Finally, the toner is heated, melting and fusing with the paper, resulting in the final copied document. This entire process can be completed within seconds.

In practice, a rotating drum is often used instead of a flat surface, and the paper to be copied is illuminated either by a flashing or stroboscopic light or a moving scanner. Since the 1930s when the concept of dry photocopying first emerged, numerous innovations have improved the xerographic process. These include advancements in the toner supply, the cost of materials, the development of color copying, the use of lasers, and overall improvements to the user experience.

Xerography was conceived in the late 1930s by American attorney Chester F. Carlson, who drew inspiration from the work of Hungarian engineer Paul Selenyi. By 1938, Carlson had created a rudimentary version of xerography. He eventually sold his idea to the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit organization in Ohio, which further refined the technique. In 1946, the small New York-based Haloid Photographic Company acquired a license from Battelle to build a machine based on Carlson’s invention. Haloid trademarked the name “Xerox machine” in 1948 and made the first model available for sale in 1949. The company subsequently changed its name to Haloid Xerox and eventually to Xerox Corporation.

Two pivotal Xerox models contributed to the widespread adoption of this technology: the Xerox 914 in 1959, marketed for its simplicity of use, and the Xerox 813 in 1963, notable for its compact table-top design. While other companies, including Kodak, produced photocopier machines based on their own patents, Xerox remained the dominant supplier due to its own patented technology. Competitors had to use specially prepared paper instead of plain paper, giving Xerox the edge in the market. IBM managed to circumvent this limitation in the late 1960s when one of its researchers developed a process using organic photoconducting material, among other innovations.

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The impact of xerography on the world can be observed through three significant examples. First, in 2002, it was discovered that Xerox machines declined to copy banknotes featuring a specific marking—a pattern resembling stars in the Orion constellation. Similar markings were subsequently found on the banknotes of at least 35 national banks. This “anti-photocopying feature,” referred to as the “Omron feature” after the Japanese corporation responsible for its design, was introduced to prevent counterfeiters from duplicating or printing currency notes using xerographic machines.

Secondly, the copyright and surveillance aspects of photocopying were highlighted in a 2012 lawsuit filed by several academic publishers, including Oxford University Press, against a photocopy shop and the University of Delhi. The publishers alleged that university teachers had selected pages from their publications to be copied, bound together, and sold to students at a low cost. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the university, recognizing the rights and benefits derived from the ability to produce multiple copies of educational material inexpensively. Additionally, the spread of copy machines enabled the reproduction of texts that would have faced censorship, allowing for the dissemination of materials such as militant manifestos, DIY guides, and self-published works.

Lastly, while Walter Benjamin argued that mechanical reproduction stripped art of its ritualistic nature and shifted its value toward politics, the impact of transformative technologies like xerography cannot be simplified. In the 1970s, xerography, coupled with affordable rent, contributed to the emergence of a vibrant arts scene in New York City. Musicians could print homemade posters advertising upcoming gigs, artists moved their work out of galleries and museums and into the streets, and writers self-published through zines, broadsides, and books. Xerography empowered a generation of innovative artists, writers, and musicians.

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In conclusion, xerography revolutionized the reproduction of printed material and played a significant role in various areas of society. From its invention by Chester F. Carlson in the late 1930s to the introduction of laser-based photocopiers and subsequent refinements, xerography has impacted counterfeiting prevention, copyright debates, and art production. The convenience, affordability, and accessibility of photocopying transformed the way people interact with texts, disseminate information, and experience art, leaving an indelible mark on the world.

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