The Coolest Thing That Ever Happened in a Building I Worked In

Once when I walked to the elevator of my office at 100 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, a woman I hadn’t seen before was waiting alone in the lobby. I said hello and asked if she’s been at the photo studio that shared the floor with us. She said yes, then we withdrew to silence. A colleague from my office joined us as the car arrived, and on the ride down, he nodded in her direction and whispered with a cupped hand over my ear, “That’s Paulina Porizkova.”

Yes, Paulina Porizkova, the 1980s and ‘90s supermodel, dressed to not be recognized in floppy hat, loose-fitting clothing, glasses and little makeup. If my sharp-eyed friend hadn’t been there, I never would have known I’d shared an elevator ride with Paulina Porizkova. 

And so it is at most of the buildings I’ve worked in over the years. Surely many noteworthy things happened at other places I’ve worked, but nothing has crossed my path, nor have I done much research. 

But research did lead me to learn that a building I once worked in is where the laser printer was invented. That’s Building 114 on the Xerox campus in Webster, N.Y., near Rochester, pictured above and visible along Phillips Road as you drive north past San Jose Drive. And I’m revealing it now because it’s the 50thanniversary of the 1969 invention, and in the anniversary year of Woodstock and the moon landing, I’m afraid it’s getting short shrift. 

I did the research as part of an assignment I had writing a blog post for Xerox about the 40thanniversary of the company’s first laser printer. My source was the inventor himself, former Xerox scientist Gary Starkweather. From my days in the early 1990s working with Xerox R&D in Building 114, I knew that the laser printer was invented somewhere in Rochester. Yet in recent years I’ve heard scientists from the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) claim their institution as its home. Some Wikipedia pages and even the historic timeline wall at the Xerox customer center on the Webster campus place the invention there, as well. 

Gary Starkeweather (Photo courtesy Xerox Corporation)

In speaking to Starkweather, I wanted to set the record straight with not just the invention’s city and building, but the very room where the light bulb went off. Maybe it was my old office!

As it turned out, that level of detail wasn’t possible. From his home in Lake Mary, Fla., Starkweather couldn’t remember his office room numbers. Nor did the Xerox historian I checked with have that information. 

So I got what I could. Starkweather conceived of laser printing in the now shuttered Building 114 and built his first prototype in Henrietta at 1350 Jefferson Road, now home to a Harris Corporation’s RF Communications operation, not far from Henrietta’s shopping mall row. 

Palo Alto also figures into the story. Starkweather transferred to PARC because Xerox Rochester management didn’t want him working on his laser-printing concept. Wait…what?

It’s true. At the time, Starkweather was relatively new to the workforce. He had recently earned a master’s degree in optics from the University of Rochester and had worked for a short time at Bausch and Lomb. His Xerox boss wanted him to focus on the engineering work he was assigned, which is reasonable enough. One of Starkweather’s first assignments was to make an early version of a facsimile machine run faster, as the cathode ray tube technology that was central to the imaging system had maxed out just at a few pages per minute. That was when Starkweather proposed lasers. As a brighter light source, it would provide capacity for increased speed. 

Lasers had been invented just a few years earlier, in 1961, and were still expensive. Starkweather’s manager discouraged him from the pursuit, dismissing the argument that costs would come down as the technology gained acceptance. 

Starkweather disobeyed, continuing to work on his concept. His boss soon found out and told him he’d be fired if he continued. Still he worked on it. A lot of inventions are created in teams, with the boss getting the credit. But there’s no mistaking this one. Starkweather was solo. 

Just about that time, in 1970, Xerox opened PARC to explore the future of office technology. Starkweather put in for a transfer. Really, it was an ideal place for him to develop his invention. But his boss objected vehemently. So Starkweather made an all or nothing bet, going over his boss’s head. Fortunately, his boss’s boss thought it was a good idea. “My boss was steamed,” Starkweather said.  

So Starkweather joined the mythic PARC team that was inventing the future of the office. His colleagues were developing the graphical user interface for computers that Apple’s Steve Jobs copied after seeing it on a lab tour, the Ethernet technology that led to the formation of networking company Cisco Systems, the page description languages for digital printing that led to the formation of Adobe, and so on. 

Starkweather soon built a prototype that became PARC’s central printer for several years. Over that time he worked out most of the bugs, so that when Xerox finally began developing its first commercial laser printer in the mid 1970s, a high-speed model for the lucrative centralized print market, his system was battle-tested and highly reliable. 

But the delay in commercialization had a consequence. IBM beat Xerox to market with its 3800 in 1976. Still, the Xerox printer, the 9700, was widely viewed as superior, and subsequent laser printer models used many of the standards Xerox had set. 

The Xerox 9700 laser printer. (Photo courtesy Xerox Corporation)

That noted, Xerox also was slow to recognize the potential of the consumer market. Starkweather developed a prototype of a small machine, but “the marketing and product planning people couldn’t see where the money was to be made with such a device,” he said, and they missed the opportunity.  

It’s worth noting that those Xerox managers also missed the 2012 ceremony in which Starkweather was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame for his laser printer invention. 

Congratulations, Gary Starkweather, on the 50thanniversary of your laser printing invention, the coolest thing that ever happened in a building I worked in…at least, that I’m aware of.

6 thoughts on “The Coolest Thing That Ever Happened in a Building I Worked In

  1. Great back story, Kerry! Read about that in “Dealers of Lightning: Xerox PARC and the Dawn of the Computer Age” but your research fleshes out the dramatis personae a bit more!

    Like

  2. Love this story! I hope Mr. Starkweather scored appropriate compensation for his brilliant work.
    P.S. In paragraph 10, do you mean to say, “just at a few pages per second,” or would it be per minute? Seems freakishly fast as written.

    Like

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