By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
Firing up a copy machine may not inspire the atavistic awe of harnessing nature that comes from turning on a water tap, but we'd be fools to forget how essential the Xerox and its competitors are to modern existence. Nor should we forget how recent an invention the copier is - or how close this machine came to entering our lives much later in time. Xerox's first demonstration model caught fire in a New York hotel ballroom hours before it was to be unveiled to an unsuspecting world in 1959. Fortunately, a backup had been sent down from Rochester; that model did not ignite, and the rest is Fortune 500 history.
But the real story of any machine is the story of its inventor - the narrative of a man's life experiences, his values and whatever deals with the devil he must make to see his "child" born. And, while the names of some inventors are synonymous with their famous creations, most are about as memorable to us as their patent numbers. So it is a double joy to watch George Shea's mostly solo show, ChesterChesterChesterChesterChester, at the Fremont Center, a poetically informative 70 minutes that summons Chester Carlson, the Xerox machine's father, from the shadows of oblivion and gives us pause to reflect upon the divine madness that drives people to invent in a world that insists everything needed in life already exists.
Carlson came from Minnesota Swede stock; his family moved to Seattle, where his father enjoyed life as a barber until stricken with spinal arthritis and tuberculosis. The Carlsons took a flier on some barren land in Mexico, which the 1910 revolution forced them to flee. They ended up in San Pedro and then the San Bernardino Mountains; for the next few years, young, science-minded Chester scraped up enough money from odd jobs to attend school, eventually graduating from Caltech - just as the Depression was wiping out research jobs.
Still, he landed a job in Bell Laboratories' New York City offices, where he was transferred to the patent office, which would soon lead him to a law degree. But it bothered him that so much of his time was spent hand-copying pages from library books, and that office secretaries had to rely upon carbon paper to make duplicates - which, by the fourth layer, were often unreadable blurs, and which also required hand corrections on each page for every mistake made on the original sheet. And so Carlson set out to invent a machine that would make duplicates of love letters, poems, suicide notes and divorce settlements - whatever the human mind had thought important enough to write down or set in type. It would be Carlson's one and only invention, but from a financial standpoint, he needn't have worried about making a better mousetrap after 1959 - his patent remains the single most profitable copyright in American history.
What Shea accomplishes so masterfully is not only the recounting of how Carlson went from envisioning his dream to introducing it to a crowd of 300 curious journalists, scientists and businessmen a quarter of a century later, but how he evokes the inventor's long journey and the vanished America in which it took place. From start to finish, Shea's character is a wide-eyed child wandering the scorpion-covered Mexican desert, papering over broken windows in the old warehouse his family lived in near Lake Arrowhead before World War I, sweeping streets in San Bernardino, picking fruit, working in a Colton cement plant. Years later, Carlson is walking from midtown Manhattan down to Wall Street in search of work, a patent office, a machining shop - the places required to realize his copier. Along the way his mother dies, then his father; he sets sulfur fires in his Queens apartment and stumbles into marriage with a German-American girl who leaves him after 10 years of disappointments.
It's mostly the disappointments we remember about this story: Carlson's Sisyphean search for a way to chemically treat reflective zinc plates, the desertion of a valued assistant, World War II's halting of nonmilitary research, and the nonplused response Carlson gets from corporate-lab representatives whenever he displays his cigar-box-size copier. (Why would anyone want to build a machine that copies documents?, they wondered.) Finally, after the war, he interests scientists at an upstate photographic company in funding further development, and then they become obsessed with ironing out the bugs that just won't go away; just as Carlson's passionate search for perfection of his idea marginalized his career, so did it bring the Haloid company to near ruin as it engaged in its mini-Manhattan Project to make . . . an office machine. It was a race no less intense than the development of the television set and had its share of outlandish moments. Early prototypes were encased in wood, had more moving parts than an automobile and required an operator to go through a process involving 14 separate steps before a copy could be made - and that copy had to dry in something resembling a pizza oven. In the meantime, 3M was developing the Thermofax copier, an inferior duplicating machine that had one distinct advantage over Carlson's - it worked.