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.
The invention of the photocopier – who'd have thought this would be a suitable topic for a performance? And yet Shea's narrative inexorably draws us forward in our seats, as though we were the first witnesses to Chester Carlson's grand creation. Throughout the evening, Shea's folksy manner grows on us as we watch this bow-tied, bespectacled figure in gray flannel repeatedly sigh, “Oh, my . . .” as he buckles beneath the weight of life and its capriciousness. There is a pathos about him that recalls John Dos Passos' melancholy passage on Luther Burbank in The 42nd Parallel, the sad realization of a life spent creating a miracle that no one had ever missed before its appearance but that no one could live without afterward.
Within weeks of Xerox's first demonstration of Carlson's copier, the newly renamed Haloid Xerox Corp. was swamped with orders, and a machine soon sat in the White House. One of the funny things about the appearance of the Xerox copier is that, against the expectation of Carlson and his colleagues, people didn't confine themselves to making one or two copies of documents as needed, but dozens – hundreds. (In those days the company rented its machines and charged by the copy.) When success came, it made Carlson a millionaire 200 times over. It also made him superfluous – a prematurely old man beset by infirmities, he had nothing to do but occasionally tour the Xerox lab or go to the movies for the eight years remaining of his life. He did, however, remarry in the late '40s, this time to a woman who believed she was psychic, and the two spent their lives meditating and happily investigating the paranormal.
Carlson's final wish was to die poor; he anonymously donated millions to humanitarian causes, as well as giving money very publicly to the scientific study of out-of-body experiences, ESP and other manifestations of what Shea's character calls “the other side.” Much of this aspect of Carlson's life is not in the show proper, but emerges in a post-play question-answer session that Shea conducts with the audience. It's a shame this couldn't have been incorporated into the performance, one ably directed by Martha Stevens but that could benefit from some technical fireworks. It would hardly cheapen the show to duplicate a few of the images and blinding bursts of light Carlson must have seen during his life. After all, isn't imitation the highest form of flattery?