34. Selenium: A Fit Of Heat And Light

Throughout history, copying information has been arduous, messy, and even dangerous — until one bored, depressed man figured out the secrets of selenium.

Featured above: The first “xerographic” photocopy in history, which Chester Carlson made by hand.

Show Notes

Connections: So many connections in this episode as to get tied in knots. For instance: One of Trithemius’ most notable students was the man himself, Paracelsus. Even more remarkable, Alexander Graham Bell won the Volta Prize for his efforts with the telephone — named after Alessandro Volta, whom we mentioned in episode 30. With that prize money, he founded Bell Labs — the same where the transistor would later be invented. And, funnily enough, Chester Carlson also worked at Bell Labs for a time, but was unfortunately canned before making his breakthrough.

Kids Today With Their Photocopiers: Like literally every single new technology, the photocopier inspired plenty of hand-wringing upon its debut. Even from a Xerox executive named Linowitz, who was quoted in Life magazine as saying, “Have we really made a contribution by making it easier to reproduce junk and nonsense?

Verbatim: The below is an absolutely incredible little video from a New York Times series called Verbatim. I think they only produced two episodes, but the idea is they take court transcripts and reenact them. This one, beyond being true and absurd, is perfectly cast, in my estimation. I hope you enjoy as much as I did.

Click To Read Transcript


  1. The Canadian Encyclopedia, Alexander Graham Bell, Aviation Pioneer. Terrance Macdonald, August 29, 2017.
  2. The Vintage News, Back To The Future: In 1880 Alexander Graham Bell Invented The Photophone,The World’s First Device For Wireless Communications. Tjana Radeska, September 18, 2016.
  3. ThoughtCo., Alexander Graham Bell’s Photophone Was An Invention Ahead Of Its Time. Mary Bellis, March 7, 2019.
  4. Alexander Graham Bell: Making Connections, p.84. Naomi Pasachoff, 1999.
  5. Alexander Graham Bell For Kids: His Life And Inventions, With 21 Activities. Mary Kay Carson.
  6. My San Antonio, Fiber-Optic Communication Began 130 Years Ago. Arturo Gallardo, June 21, 2010. ed: This is a pedantic note, but no it didn’t. There was no fiber involved whatsoever with the photophone. It was wireless, remember?
  7. io9, Medieval Monks Complained About Their Jobs In The Margins Of Ancient Manuscripts. Annalee Newitz, March 23, 2012.
  8. Atlast Obscura, The Strange And Grotesque Doodles In The Margins Of Medieval Books. Anika Burgess, May 9, 2017.
  9. In Praise Of Scribes. Johannes Trithemius, 1492.
  10. The Life And Letters Of Martin Luther.
  11. nypl.org, NYPL, Mother Of Invention. Michael Wenyon, January 30, 2009.
  12. Xerox, The Story Of Xerography.
  13. Business Insider, This Is The First Xerox Copy Ever Made. Kelly Dickerson, October 22, 2013.
  14. Slightly messy here, as they changed their name to “Haloid Xerox” first, in 1958.
  15. Smithsonian Magazine, How The Photocopier Changed The Way We Worked — And Played. Clive Thompson, March 2015.
  16. The New York Times, At Age 13, Creating The Pentagon Papers, Photocopies, At Least. James Barron, January 28, 2010.
  17. Royal Society Of Chemistry, Selenium.

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