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Pioneers in Printing

Copy that! From the Xerox machine to 3-D printers, businesses that let people produce stuff can print money.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Here’s a great idea. Figure out a way cheaply to make or produce something at home—or in your office—that could previously only be made at a distant factory at great expense. Then build a business model and systems that allow that technology to proliferate. It would be a license to, well, print money.

That’s a point that has been proven by two little-known pioneers of printing, working nearly a half-century apart. While both have comparatively low name recognition and somewhat generic names, Joe Wilson and Chuck Hull invented and commercialized technologies that have become household names: Xerox and 3-D printing.

Johannes Gutenberg’s 15th century printing press made the reproduction of language and images efficient, less-labor intensive, and more democratic. In the 19th century, steam-powered printing presses led to mass circulations newspapers and magazines. But through most of the 20th century, printing documents remained an expensive, laborious process. You either had to make a huge investment in an offset printing press or content yourself with the messy, clunky mimeograph machines that relied on carbon paper.

In the 1930s, Chester Carlson, a patent attorney who was frustrated with the length of time it took to get documents, began tinkering with a way to make images on paper through a process that involved electrical charges, powder, and heat. In 1944, he sold most of the technology to the Battelle Memorial Institute, a research outfit in Columbus, Ohio, in 1944, where researchers coined a Greek-based word—xerography, meaning “dry writing”—to describe the process.

Soon after, xerography came to the attention of Joseph Wilson, the president of Rochester, N.Y.-based Haloid Corp., which made photographic paper and supplies for Eastman-Kodak. Wilson was eager to diversify. “We’ve got to come up with new products for the market,” he said. Latching onto the prospects of printing, Haloid acquired the rights to the technology and began to develop it.

Haloid spent nearly 15 years and $75 million developing prototype copiers, even building a factory in 1954 far ahead of demand. Over time, a system emerged. Place a piece of paper face down on a screen, push a button and a bar of light would scan the document, and reflect the image on a revolving drum charged with electricity. Powdered ink would adhere to the charged image and then it would be pressed via heat onto paper. Voila! Wilson in 1959 called xerography “a fundamental new way of visual communications.”

The first machine, the 914—so called because it could copy on paper nine inches by fourteen inches—was a complex, clunky beast. Requiring more than 1,200 components, it weighed 648 pounds and had an initial price of $29,500. So Wilson had to innovate a new business plan—a $950 monthly lease, with 2,000 free copies. The first 914 shipped on March 1, 1960.

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Because it empowered office workers in new ways, the 914, which Financial World dubbed “the Cadillac of copier machines,” was a smash hit. By 1961, when the company changed its name from Haloid to Xerox, 10,000 had been installed. The company worked tirelessly to make its copiers more efficient and less of a luxury product. By 1966, when Xerox introduced the 813—now down to a $2,500 purchase price or a $25 monthly rental fee—the company had $500 million in revenues, and 500 patents. Perhaps more significantly, Xerox had become synonymous with the whole concept of printing copies of documents—and helped lay the groundwork for the vast computer printing industry.

A quarter-century after the introduction of the 914, a scientist with a background in photography products would add another dimension to do-it-yourself printing: literally.

Chuck Hull, who had a degree in physics, spent several years in DuPont’s Photo Products Division before joining UVP, Inc., a California-based company that made industrial lamps that used ultra-violet light to fuse coatings onto tabletops and other surfaces. Hull was frustrated that it took a long time and a lot of money to make small plastic prototype parts. He knew from his work that shining light through certain liquid chemical compounds—a group of materials dubbed “photopolymers”—would make them into a hard plastic that could be further etched by light. Laying down several layers, he reasoned, would allow one effectively to print out a small part. Like Haloid’s printing technology, this process had a Greek-based name: stereolithography.

Of course, this was easier said than done. Starting in 1983, Hull began to tinker. And after a lot of trial and error—Hull had to write the computer code that would direct the process—he was able to print out rudimentary objects. The first thing he made was a tiny cup. Having received a patent on the technology in 1986, Hull founded 3D Systems to commercialize his discoveries.

As was the case with the Xerox 914, the first machines Hull built to “print” plastic objects were bulky, huge, and expensive. Because he couldn’t trundle them around to factories and offices, Hull made films about them. He found a strong reception among automakers, who realized that 3-d printing would be a cheap shortcut for making component prototypes.

Rather than rest on his laurels, however Hull continued to innovate—in the basic technology (he would amass 93 patents), and in the business model surrounding it. Throughout the 1990s, advances in chemistry led the materials solidify more quickly, thus making 3D printing more useful. Hull and his team developed a file format—known as .stl—that enabled design software to communicate with the printer.

The beauty of the 3-D printer was that users would continually figure out new ways to use it. Hull was gratified, for example, when Texas surgeons in 1996 were able to use of his machines to create a bone model that assisted in the effort to separate conjoined twins. “When some of those surgeries were first done using the help of our technology, it was really touching for me,” as Hull put it.

As with Xerox copier, 3-D printers have become smaller, cheaper, and more functional over time. Systems now cost as little as $1,300. And the rise of the internet as a vehicle for sharing design has afforded people the ability to download designs and produce objects at home—forks and knives, plates and cups, toys and keychains, parts and tools. Libraries and maker spaces have evolved into democratic “factories,” in which people of all ages can experiment. And the possibilities are limitless. As materials science advance, we have the prospect of printing body parts and sophisticated auto parts. Even food and beverage companies are utilizing 3D printing to help engineer new products.

And that’s the real thread that connects the original printing press to the great advances of 20th and 21st century printing. These industrial technologies have become the handmaidens of creativity. They simultaneously tap into the desire of giant corporations and businesses to reproduce information and products while tapping into the human desire to create.