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Invention and innovation: An introduction
Invention and innovation: An introduction

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10.3 Constructive discontent

Inventive ideas often arise because existing technology or design proves to be unsatisfactory in some way – perhaps too costly, too inefficient or too dangerous. Using a product or process for a while can reveal inadequacies in its performance and is often vital preparation for producing ideas for improvements. You may have become dissatisfied either with an existing product or process or with the fact that something doesn't exist to meet a need you've identified. But creative individuals go further than this unfocused dissatisfaction and actually try to do something about it.

James Dyson became dissatisfied with the wheel of a conventional wheelbarrow sinking into sand and soft soil so in 1974 he re-invented the wheel. His Ballbarrow is designed with a ball-shaped wheel to ride over soft ground without sinking and to absorb the shock when used on rough ground (Figure 30). It also has feet that don't sink in the mud and a plastic bin that doesn't rust – both drawbacks of previous wheelbarrows he'd used.

Figure 30
Figure 30 Dyson's Ballbarrow. The ball-shaped wheel improves the ride over rough or soft ground (Source: courtesy of Dyson Ltd)

Box 4 Constructive discontent and the invention of photocopying

In the early 1930s, US patent lawyer Chester Carlson began to be dissatisfied with existing methods of copying patents that he required for his work. He was determined to find a better means than the existing photographic methods, which were slow and inefficient.

After an extensive search through patents and other literature he identified some promising ideas. He began experimenting and in 1938 produced the first print using a process that eventually was to become the basis of the modern photocopier (Figure 31).

Figure 31
Figure 31 Chester Carlson, the inventor of xerography, with his first xerographic apparatus (Source: Rank Xerox UK Ltd)

Static electricity was the key to his invention. Carlson started with a sulfur-coated plate, though later this was developed into a selenium drum, which was given an overall negative electrical charge. An image of a document was then projected or reflected onto the charged surface. The charge was removed where the light struck the surface, leaving only the dark part of the image, such as text characters, negatively charged. Positively charged particles of dry powder were then applied that stuck to the negatively charged portions of the plate or drum. The powder was then transferred to paper and fused on to it by heating, leaving a permanent image.

In his 1939 patent Carlson called this process electrophotography (Figure 32). But he soon came to call it xerography – from the Greek xeros, meaning dry, and graphein, meaning to write.

Figure 32
Figure 32 Extract from Chester Carlson's 1939 patent application on electrophotography, which established the essential principles of photocopying (Source: van Dulken, 2002)

His invention was a radical departure from existing technology, however, and it took many years both to develop and improve the invention and to persuade a company to invest in it. In 1944 the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit-making organisation, agreed to finance the invention and after a few years of development signed an agreement with a small photographic materials company, the Haloid Corporation, to market the invention.

The first electrostatic copier, the Haloid 1385, came onto the market in the late 1940s. It was manually operated and took several minutes to make each copy. Not surprisingly it was not successful at first because it did not offer an advantage over existing methods of copying, which by this time were a combination of carbon paper for a small number of copies and electromechanical stencil duplicators for a larger volume. Finally, after another decade of effort at improving the technology, the first automatic, plain-paper photocopier, the Xerox 914, was launched onto the market in 1959 – Haloid had changed its name to Xerox. This was an automatic machine that operated at the push of a button and could produce seven copies a minute. It was the foundation for a huge multibillion dollar business in which Xerox, thanks to its patents, had a monopoly until the late 1980s.

When the patent protection expired, rivals, mainly Japanese, began to enter this lucrative market in competition with Xerox. The original fairly straightforward need has been cultivated by what the ever-improving technology has made possible – monochrome copiers producing a hundred copies a minute and capable of collating, stapling, enlarging and reducing. The colour photocopier was brought out in 1973 and the laser colour copier in 1986.

Now it is impossible to imagine a modern office without photocopying facilities. Xerox also took advantage of the increasing use of computing in the office to diversify into computer printers, scanners, fax machines and multifunction machines. Many people predicted that the spread of computers would lead to the paperless office. However recent estimates suggest people are making 500 billion photocopies each year, and 15 trillion (15 000 000 000 000) copies on photocopiers, computer printers and multifunction machines combined in the USA alone (Lyman, 2003).