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An inventor at heart

Ex-Xerox inventor Robert Gundlach helped popularize photocopying. At 78, he's ready for an encore.

Considering the ubiquity of the photocopier, it may be hard to believe that five decades back investors pooh-poohed the invention as too complicated to ever be affordable.

But thanks to Robert Gundlach, who played a central role in creating the photocopier, the machine is a common business tool in offices around the world.

Later this year, the Xerox veteran will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.

Gundlach has been issued more than 160 patents--most of them for innovations in xerography. But at age 78, this avid runner--Grundlach logs up to a mile and a half each day--is still pushing himself. His latest invention aims to make water-based heat pumps a practical heating alternative for urban homes.

CNET News.com recently caught up with Grundlach to discuss the photocopier, the art of inventing and his latest efforts to reduce global warming.

Q: You didn't invent the photocopier, but you helped make it affordable and useful.
Grundlach: Yes, some of the headlines embarrass me. I was in the right place at the right time. Xerography was just starting to take off, and the problems the field would face were right up my alley. As a physicist, I was able to understand and apply my skills to refine and make a product affordable and more useful.

So who did invent xerography?
Grundlach: Chester Carlson invented it. I got to know him very well. He was working as a patent attorney and was very frustrated that six or seven copies of documents had to be made with every draft proposal. Back then, they had to send out documents to be copied and they didn't come back for a week or two. He was convinced that if someone could invent a reliable, simple, cost-effective copier, the world would beat a path to his door. He was wrong though.

My mission in life now is to reduce global warming.

Haloid (which eventually changed its name to Xerox) didn't have the resources to bring a copier to market so we went looking for investors. We offered it to IBM. IBM hired Arthur B. Little, who concluded that it was a lost cause and to forget about it. "It's too complicated to be affordable," is what they said. That's a direct quote!

So no one thought there was a market at all?
Grundlach: Ernst and Ernst counted the number of carbon sheets sold per year and based on that, they said there was a small market, but it would saturate with 4,000 units. We tooled up 10,000 units and ended up selling 200,000. Then another 250,000 were sold.

These units were so popular that when they broke down--and the early ones frequently did--our customers would tell us, but instead of wanting to return them, they wanted two or three more. Those early units could only make seven copies per minute but they were really revolutionary. It was a surprise to everybody.

You have a number of patents for xerography enabling everything from color copying to digital technology. What were some of your early contributions?
Grundlach: Initially we couldn't copy anything more than an eighth of an inch wide, so I helped with that and also helped to make the units smaller (the desktop copier). They were pretty big early on. I also helped to make the units more affordable.

You've been an inventor your whole life. What's the hardest part of inventing new things?
Grundlach: I don't think of it that way. I think of it as being in my own little sandbox. Once there was concern that we were working too hard so we made up a happiness survey and made everyone take it. What we found was that working even around the

City homes can't use current pumps, but my new system allows a water-based heat pump to operate in very little acreage for use in city homes.
clock for a team that believes in what you're doing against all odds is very gratifying and morale-building. We were very happy. I told my wife that story and she said they didn't take a survey among the wives.

Which of your patents are you most proud of?
Grundlach: Probably my most recent patent, which was issued on my wife's birthday last year. My mission in life now is to reduce global warming and my most recent patent can help that. It's possible to keep homes warm with water-based heat pumps. I have a system in my house that has been working for 12 years now and it works beautifully. But I've got four acres and you'll need more than a half a mile of tubing, six feet under ground. Heat all winter and cool all summer on just $600 a year--just under $50 a month.

City homes can't use current pumps but my new system allows a water-based heat pump to operate in very little acreage for use in city homes. (A) new invention will make water-based heat pumps possible in city homes.

What is a water-based heat pump?
Heat pumps are used in refrigerators, cars and air conditioners. They are a means of transferring thermal energy into or out of a space. A good pump will deliver four times the energy that it consumes in operating. A new system doesn't require underground tubing and it takes the heat out of water and makes ice.