Alumnus Damodar Pai: scientist and inventor

The last time you used the photocopier machine, did you stop to wonder about how this ubiquitous piece of office equipment came to be? Did you think of how a technology that allows you to make a copy of that important biometric data page of your passport costs you just pennies? Some technologies pass quickly from novelty to ubiquity and therein lies the success of not only the technology, but also of the scientists and engineers behind it. One of the individuals you can thank for the wonder of photocopying is University of Minnesota alumnus Damodar Pai. He was part of the team of scientists and engineers at Xerox Corporation that made  electrophotography, the technology used in most copiers and some printers, a modern day convenience that we have all come to expect in any office.

Journey to Xerox

Pai’s journey to Xerox was not something he had planned. He had arrived at the University of Minnesota to earn his master’s degree under the guidance of professor Aldert van der Ziel who assigned him to professor Carl van Vliet, a member in van der Ziel's group. On completion of his master’s degree program, he intended to  transfer to Stanford University for a doctoral degree. But van Vliet convinced him to continue at the University. By early 1965, Pai had wrapped up his doctoral research and was applying finishing touches to his dissertation. Sleeping in on a Saturday morning in his room in Centennial Hall, Pai woke up to a knock on the door: there was a call for him on the only phone on that floor of the building. It was a friend asking him to come to the department (which was then housed in  Electrical Engineering Building) because there was a visitor who might be of some interest to him. Promising to be there soon, Pai got ready and made his way over. The visitor was a research manager from the Xerox Corporation, who invited him to visit the company’s offices in Rochester, NY for an interview. Although Pai did not know much about the company, he had used the Xerox 914, the company’s first copier machine. His experience with it intrigued him enough to accept the invitation to visit Rochester (the opportunity to visit Niagara Falls was a bonus). The interview ended up with Pai getting a job offer from Xerox in their newly established Research Department. Before the end of the year, Pai graduated with his doctoral degree and moved to one of the most innovative companies in the United States.

During his 35 year career with  Xerox, Pai was involved in several significant projects including understanding the physics of photo-generation in amorphous inorganic and organic materials, and  invention of a panchromatic flexible organic photoconductor to replace the brittle amorphous selenium photoconductor which had limited print capability for making color prints. The new organic  photoconductor was at the heart of a new generation of copiers and printers.

Awards and recognition

Pai rose to the position of Senior Research Fellow, the highest technical position in the Research and Development Department of the company. He has authored over 85 publications including technical papers, book chapters, a book that he also edited, and is the inventor or co-inventor of 124 US patents. In 1984 he received the  Xerox President’s Award, a special honor granted to individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to Xerox. It was presented at the company’s headquarters at  Stamford, Connecticut in April that same year. Other awards include the Society for Imaging Science and Technology’s 1988 Chester Carlson Award which “recognizes outstanding technical work that advances the state of art in electrophotographic printing,” and the 1995 Inventor of the Year honor awarded by the Rochester Intellectual Property Law Association “given to individuals whose invention has resulted in significant job creation” (at the time Rochester, NY was one of the leaders in patents per capita). In 1984, he was made a Fellow of the American Physical Society for “his experimental work on fundamental photo-physical processes in amorphous semiconductors and his work on the development of novel organic photoconductors for large area applications.” In 2000, Pai and his Xerox colleagues John Yanus and Milan Stolka were named Heroes of Chemistry, an annual award given by the American Chemical Society in recognition of scientists who have enabled “life-saving treatments and conveniences of the modern world” through materials that are the products of chemistry. Specifically, Pai, Yanus and Stolka were recognized for inventing the organic photoreceptor device which has  enabled low cost printers and copiers.

In retrospect

Looking back at his career with Xerox, starting with the manner in which he came upon the position, and the significant findings he made of electric field dependent photogeneration in amorphous inorganic and organic materials, Pai strongly believes in the random nature of events having life changing impacts. Not one to hold the idea that a detailed life plan will help you successfully chart your course through life, he is a firm believer that random actions can lead to significant breakthroughs. He is also a keen advocate for interdisciplinary collaboration, and credits the chemists and materials engineers who patiently listened to and collaborated with him for his success at Xerox. In the article, “Physics of Electrophotography” jointly authored by Pai and B.E. Springett for the Reviews of Modern Physics, the scientists point out that “innovation and technology lead science” in the development of electrophotography. They refer to mathematician Jacob Bronowski’s stress on the role of ritual in shaping technology in the example of the making of the samurai sword that he presents in “The Ascent of Man”. While the rise of modern metallurgy has produced a simplified, scientific understanding of the process, Bronowski explains that the  sword was the product not only of science and precision but also of art and ritual. Drawing a parallel between Bronowski’s example of the samurai sword and modern technology, Pai and Springett emphasize the importance of the connectedness of technology, and art and ritual, where the latter often lead the former: “Modern technology, including electrophotography, is not without art. ” Chester Carlson famously invented the technology of electrophotography and when scientists began to dive deep into the complex relationships among the materials and their interactions, both the process and product were improved. Reflecting on his own experience, Pai says that the development of electrophotography was the result of close interdisciplinary collaboration between physicists, chemists, and materials scientists.

Dr. Damodar Pai retired from Xerox in January 2001, but retirement has not slowed him down. He enjoys traveling, and keeps in touch with his Xerox colleagues and his University of Minnesota mates. They gather round often for Friday luncheons, Christmas parties, and other celebrations. Although the pandemic put these activities on hold for a while, Pai and his wife Malathi Pai are looking forward to connecting with their friends once again. They live in Fairport, New York.

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