Disruptive Innovation from 1938 Hits Home

A significant event happened in our industry last week and it passed without almost any discussion or commentary from most of our industry. For those of us involved in selling digital printing and for those of us who utilise digital printing to earn a living, our industry wouldn’t be what it is today without the work of a American named Chester Carlson 75 years ago.

You see,  he was the person who came up with the concept, the prototype and the name  – xerography, which spawned one of the worlds largest technological industries employing hundreds of thousands of people all around the world.

His idea was to create a method of duplicating a document without having to use chemicals or only being able to produce a few extra copies as you made the original, remember that back then, carbon paper was the way things were duplicated, there were no memory typewriters, printing machines used heavy metal type that had to loaded manually into a frame before you could print or you used duplicating machines like the Gestetner or a Mimeograph with a wax master and methylated spirits. It was a very different world to today. He was the first person to create a method of copying that was dry and didn’t require chemicals to do the job.

The first photocopy in 1938

While Chester Carlson is well thought of as the father of this industry, however, the roots go far deeper and in fact go back to an Australian, Professor Oscar Ulrich Vonwiller back in 1907 at Sydney University. He was the one who discovered the connection between selenium and light and published a paper on the photoconductive properties of selenium. Without this discovery there would be no toner based copiers or printers because that is what was used to on the surface of the drums in these devices to capture a latent image.

We call the principle Electrophotography these days and the technology is responsible for totally changing the way we produce documents. It’s enabled businesses like print shops and commercial printers to create high value documents for their clients and in turn generate significant revenues for their businesses. In most cases without requiring any technical expertise to be able to do so. Almost every business today uses a laser printer or digital copier to produce full colour or black and white documents from their desktop. All a very long way from what Chester Carlson dreamed up 75 years ago.

Chester Carlson

Today we are seeing massive changes thanks to the internet. The term Disruptive Innovation refers to an innovation that creates a new market and value network (source wikipedia)  and eventually goes on to disrupt an existing market. The Electrophotographic process has certainly done that to the print industry. In the last 10 years we have seen the traditional print companies change their views on the technology and many who held out for years have finally come to accept these devices as valuable contributors to their business.

The technology continues to improve, with high levels of productivity, reliability and near offset print quality coming from most suppliers devices. With every new generation the digital printing machines continue to improve. Printing speeds using Electrophography have reached the incredible speed of over 3,000 A4 pages per minute. With the ability for every single one of them to be different!

So what’s next – will inkjet printing be the next disruptor, will nano technology or electronic paper be the next massive change – who knows, some other disruptive innovation no doubt is being dreamed up right now.

All I can say here is thanks to Mr Carlson for sticking his neck out, taking the risk, persevering with his beliefs, spending his money and creating an industry that we who work, in benefit tremendously.

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