Getting the Future Wrong: Xerox’s Hardware Solution to Software Problems

In 1965, Xerox made a 14-minute-long video ad for the Xerox 2400 photocopier, and I’ve been tickled by it ever since I first saw it years ago. Not only does the ad, titled “What’s the Difference?” illustrate how many steps the Xerox 2400 can eliminate from the process of short-run duplication,

The Xerox 2400 reduces the steps in the short-run duplication process from seven to two.

it also notes that since xerography is a dry process, as the name suggests, it keeps printers’ and office workers’ hands clean.

No more stained fingers, no more smudged documents.

Even better, with just a handful of simple techniques,

Just use overlays to add, delete, and substitute.

the Xerox 2400 not only duplicates documents but also facilitates the creation of new ones. The video devotes a good three minutes to demonstrating how this will revolutionize the sales order and invoicing system, the purchase order system, and production order system.

The ad closes by noting that the Xerox 2400 is so easy to use that not just women, but even children can do it.

In her book, Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage, Stephanie Coontz conveys the contemporary appeal of such advertisements, which seem so strange to us today. The context is the household, but the concept is the same:

I like to show my students an hour-long film put out by General Electric in 1956. In this long advertisement for electricity, mom discovers that her new clothes dryer gives her the chance to bond with her daughter and pick up some of the ‘groovy’ slang of the expanding teen pop culture. Mom then shows her daughter how to use the family’s new freezer and self-timing oven to make a meal that will impress the cute roommate her older son has brought home from college. The visitor likes his oven-baked ham, frozen orange juice, and electrically whipped dessert so much that he skips the dreary lecture he’d planned to attend and takes the ecstatic daughter dancing. All this was achieved by living better electrically.
My students are incredulous that people would actually sit and watch this corny stuff for a whole hour. But one day the grandmother of one student was visiting class when we watched the GE film, and she mentioned having seen it in the 1950s. To her, it had not been a cliché but a revelation.
It’s hard for anyone under the age of sixty to realize how profoundly people’s hunger for marriage and domesticity in the 1950s was shaped by their huge relief that two decades of depression and war were finally over and by their amazed delight at the benefits of the first real mass consumer economy in history. ‘It was like a miracle,’ my mother [a former shipyard worker and civil rights activist] once told me, to see so many improvements, so quickly, in the quality of everyday life.

Xerox is, of course, like GE, still a household name today, though the days of long-format infomercials are gone for both.

Where Xerox perhaps has some chagrin, though, is in the fact that it pursued its analog dream of revolutionizing office processes through hardware so avidly, and left its early development of personal workstation computers—complete with the first graphical user interface—to languish. Worse, to be examined, duplicated, and improved upon by a young Steve Jobs.

So today a technologically savvy bookkeeper works on a non-Xerox personal computer, streamlines their work flow with online platforms like or Expensify, and strives to use actual paper as little as possible. Knowing how to edit or redact documents at the photocopier is a mere curiosity.*

* If composing documents at the copy machine is a big part of your business process, we need to talk. Consult with me about technology upgrades that will save you tons of time.

Illustration of an analog numeric typewriter, superimposed on a paper chart of printed numbers.

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