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How Xerox became a verb

Before you could Google a fact, you could Xerox a document.In 1959, Xerox debuted the first photocopier, a pro...

Posted: Jan 31, 2018 10:17 PM
Updated: Jan 31, 2018 10:17 PM

Before you could Google a fact, you could Xerox a document.

In 1959, Xerox debuted the first photocopier, a product that would become ubiquitous in offices around the world.

Companies and businesses raced to add the new Xerox 914 to their offices. Other tech companies, such as IBM, soon followed Xerox and started making copiers.

"The copier was the probably the most successful industrial product of its time," said Michael Hiltzik, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and author of "Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age."

Xerox was an innovation machine. In the 1970s, it created two-sided copying and the first laser printers. The following decade, it rolled out dual-beam laser printing, which paved the way for high-speed printing.

The photocopier became so successful, "Xerox" became a verb -- like "Google," "Scotch Tape," "Jet Ski," and "FedEx."

But the past decade hasn't been so kind to the company. On Wednesday, Japan's Fujifilm announced it was taking a controlling stake in Xerox and cutting 10,000 jobs.

Xerox was swallowed up in the digital era by a different technology it helped pioneer: personal computers.

Related: Fujifilm takes control of Xerox and cuts 10,000 jobs

Scientists, engineers and researchers at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Company (PARC) tried to build the future of office computing in the early 1970s.

In 1973, PARC researchers built Xerox Alto, the world's first personal computer with a mouse connected to a graphical interface screen. The lab invented Ethernet cables too.

Yet Xerox missed out on the pot of gold it discovered.

"Xerox's entire being was geared toward building and exploiting the copier," said Hiltzik.

In 1979, Steve Jobs and toured Xerox's Palo Alto facility. Xerox had been an early investor in Apple before it went public in 1980.

Although an urban myth has evolved that Jobs stole Xerox's idea, Jobs and Apple had already been working on developing a visual interface. His visits to Xerox left him and lieutenants, including Bill Atkinson, even more convinced they were on the right track, said Hiltzik.

Four years later, Apple's released Lisa, its first computer with a mouse.

Apple was nimble and better positioned to bring its fledgling new technology to mass market because it "didn't have a legacy to protect," said Hiltzik.

"Xerox was too big and too focused to move wholesale into an entirely new business," he added.

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