“10-22-38 Astoria.” That phrase — the contents of the world’s first photocopy, produced October 22, 1938, in Astoria, New York — launched an information revolution.
Known as “xerography,” from the Greek for “dry writing,” the new technology enabled people everywhere to duplicate and share information affordably. Before the photocopier, copies were made either by using carbon paper when typing or a “mimeograph” machine that forced ink through a coated fibre sheet. Both were messy, cumbersome and, for the average person, expensive.
The first commercial copiers arrived in 1959. Six hundred years earlier, the printing press had dramatically expanded the availability and affordability of books. But relatively few people had access to a printing press. Now, millions could make copies of nearly any printed material at the touch of a button. Not only could anyone read a book, they could publish their own, too — and on a budget.
They also could disseminate information and opinions. Copiers were so easy to use that the former Soviet Union kept them locked up under heavy guard, fearing they would be used to duplicate censored publications. But in countries where free speech isn’t censored, people have used photocopies to organize political meetings, make signs for rallies and generally publicize their views.
Technology has advanced significantly since the early days of xerography — and brought with it new, even paperless ways to communicate and share information. But the copy machine remains important. Millions still use it every day to duplicate and disseminate information, whether at work, in school or on the sidewalk.