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Not All Who Wander Are Lost

2021 October 3
by Greg Satell

Chester Carlson must’ve seemed like a hopeless dreamer. Working in the patent department at Bell Labs, he wrote down hundreds of ideas, the vast majority of which never amounted to anything. He was eventually fired from his job and went through a few more after that. Chester wasn’t the type of man satisfied with the mundane, everyday.

There was one idea, however, that would keep his interest. He worked on it for years, even while holding down a day job and going to law school at night. When his wife got tired of the explosions he made mixing chemicals in the kitchen, he moved his experiments to a second floor room in a house his mother-in-law owned.

Eventually he conjured up a working prototype and his invention truly would change the world. Yet that wasn’t the end of the story. It would still take decade to transform Carlson’s invention into a viable business and many twists and turns to the story after that. The one constant was that when a challenge arose, what saved the day was off the beaten path.

An Unexpected Innovation Of A Completely Different Sort

The computing pioneer Howard Aiken advised “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” That was exactly the case with Chester Carlson. Having proved that his invention worked, he thought everybody would immediately see the value in it. They didn’t.

After working on it for over a decade, he finally teamed up with the Haloid corporation, which helped him refine his product, but it still cost nearly ten times more than competitive machines. They tried to interest the great companies of the day—Kodak, IBM and GE—but all demurred.  There just didn’t seem to be a value proposition that would justify the cost.

Then Joe Wilson, the President of Haloid, had a billion dollar idea. Instead of selling their machines, why not lease them?  As it turned out, once customers had the chance to use the copy machines, they ended up using them far more than they thought they would, which made the leases extraordinarily profitable.

With this new business model, Carlson’s innovation took off and the company soon changed its name to the Xerox Corporation, which dominated the copier industry for decades. Over the years, the firm continued to innovate along its business model. New products came out that could print more copies faster, which made it even more money

A Firing Offense

In 1961, the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange and, as it continued to grow by leaps and bounds, it attracted a cadre of highly qualified executives who honed its model further. Because it made the bulk of its profits on the number of copies printed, that became Xerox’s key metric of success.

It was around this time that the company hired a young engineer named Gary Starkweather, Much like Carlson, he was a guy with big ideas, but soon found he didn’t fit in well at Xerox. Part of the problem probably had something to do with his background. Copiers were largely based on chemistry and Gary’s interest was optics. In particular, he was excited about lasers.

But it was more than that. Gary wanted to build something outside the copier business and, in a way that was uncannily similar to Chester Carlson’s situation, the higher-ups just didn’t see how it fit in with their business. In fact, his boss actually threatened to fire anyone who worked with Starkweather on the project.

Eventually, had had enough. He marched into the Vice President’s office and asked, “Do you want me to do this for you or for someone else?” In the business culture at the time, this was considered unheard of behavior, clearly a firing offense. Yet fate intervened and destiny had something very different in store for Gary Starkweather.

As luck would have it, Xerox CEO Peter McColough was a bit of a visionary himself. He saw that Japanese competitors like Cannon and Ricoh were disrupting the copier market and wanted to shift the firm’s focus to “the architecture of information.” No one really knew what that meant, but a special unit, the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), had been set up to figure it out.

An Organization Fit For Purpose

For the researchers at PARC, Starkweather’s work was a revelation.  They had been working to build a personal computer and one of the things they were working on was revolutionary technology called bitmapping, which could create graphics, such as charts and graphs, never before possible. The problem was that they had no way to print the images out.

Gary’s invention proved to be the answer to their problem and the laser printer he developed would save Xerox (the personal computer, also developed at PARC, quite famously, would take a very different path). The very same attributes that made Gary a pariah in the old lab back in Webster, New York, made him a hero in Palo Alto, California.

Not everyone fared so well. Two of the scientists at PARC, Dick Shoup and Alvy Ray Smith, were working on a new graphics technology called SuperPaint. Unfortunately, it didn’t fit in with the PARC’s vision of personal computing and the “architecture of information.” Much like Starkweather, the two were seen as outcasts and both would go elsewhere.

Smith would eventually team up with another graphics pioneer, Ed Catmull, at the New York Institute of Technology. Later they joined George Lucas, who saw the potential for computer graphics to create a new paradigm for special effects. Eventually, the operation was spun out and bought by Steve Jobs. That company, Pixar, was sold to Disney in 2006 for $7.4 billion.

What Makes Changemakers Different?

I’ve had the opportunity to meet and get to know many genuine changemakers over the years. Both of my books, in their own way, explored the question of what makes these people different. How are they able to make such an outsized impact, while most of us just seem to puddle along?

Many believe that there is something innate about changemakers, that there is some intrinsic quality that makes them different. I never saw any evidence of that. In fact, many showed little early promise. Einstein couldn’t find a job out of school. As a young lawyer, Gandhi was so shy he couldn’t bring himself to speak in open court. Chester Carlson, as we have seen, spent decades tinkering before his idea ever amounted to anything.

What made the difference, in every case, is that someone came across a problem they couldn’t look away from; that they felt a burning passion to solve and wanted to devote their talents and energies to. For Einstein it was the idea of riding on a beam of light, for Gandhi it was humiliation he faced on a train and for Carlson it was copying machines.

If there is a constant theme it is this: They were exploring. In fact, that was often why early success eluded them, because they had their eyes on the horizon and not in front of them. They had a need to venture out, to encounter something beyond their immediate context. In effect, the prerequisite for finding something is to get up and go looking.

Not all who wander are lost.

– Greg

Image: Unsplash

2 Responses leave one →
  1. October 3, 2021

    Such a fun story. Xerox… such an innovative company … for everyone else.
    “If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.” Plato’s warning was that if you had that good idea and were also convincing, they would eventually kill you for it.
    I republished my updated Genetics book a month ago or so. Now I have to see what I can do to promote it. I found a video of Dr. Dagen Wells who has worked to develop the technology that would make my vision practical. In over 3 years it had about 400 views and no comments about what I consider one of the most important technologies humans will ever produce. A vision that can see the importance of genetics is a rare thing.
    Moby Dick is considered one of the greatest of the American novels, but rather than early, he was a little late and the American appetite for stories of whaling adventures had been replaced by wild west stories. After his death, his sister found the story and promoted it. We know how that turned out, but he never did. I wonder if I will ever see my vision communicated. It could lead to the greatest wealth ever created.

  2. October 4, 2021

    Thx Greg…I needed this pick-me-up.

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