The contemporary microfilm reader has multiple origins. Bradley A. Fiske filed a patent for a “reading machine” on March 28, 1922, a pocket-sized handheld device that could be held up to one eye to magnify columns of tiny print on a spooling paper tape. But the apparatus that gained traction was G. L. McCarthy’s 35mm scanning camera, which Eastman Kodak introduced as the Rekordak in 1935, specifically to preserve newspapers. By 1938, universities began using it to microfilm dissertations and other research papers. During World War II, microphotography became a tool for espionage, and for carrying military mail, and soon there was a recognition that massive archives of information and cross-referencing gave agencies an advantage. Libraries adopted microfilm by 1940, after realizing that they could not physically house an increasing volume of publications, including newspapers, periodicals, and government documents. As the war concluded in Europe, a coordinated effort by the U.S. Library of Congress and the U.S. State Department also put many international newspapers on microfilm as a way to better understand quickly changing geopolitical situations. Collecting and cataloging massive amounts of information, in microscopic form, from all over the world in one centralized location led to the idea of a centralized intelligence agency in 1947.
It wasn’t just spooks and archivists, either. Excited by the changing future of reading, in 1931, Gertrude Stein, William Carlos Williams, F. W. Marinetti, and 40 other avant-garde writers ran an experiment for Bob Brown’s microfilm-like reading machine. The specially processed texts, called “readies,” produced something between an art stunt and a pragmatic solution to libraries needing more shelf space and better delivery systems. Over the past decade, I have redesigned the readies for 21st-century reading devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers.
By 1943, 400,000 pages had been transferred to microfilm by the U.S. National Archives alone, and the originals were destroyed. Millions more were reproduced and destroyed worldwide in an effort to protect the content from the ravages of war. In the 1960s, the U.S. government offered microfilm documents, especially newspapers and periodicals, for sale to libraries and researchers; by the end of the decade, copies of nearly 100,000 rolls (with about 700 pages on each roll) were available.
Their longevity was another matter. As early as May 17, 1964, as reported in The New York Times, microfilm appeared to degrade, with “microfilm rashes” consisting of “small spots tinged with red, orange or yellow” appearing on the surface. An anonymous executive in the microfilm market was quoted as saying they had “found no trace of measles in our film but saw it in the film of others and they reported the same thing about us.” The acetate in the film stock was decaying after decades of use and improper storage, and the decay also created a vinegar smell—librarians and researchers sometimes joked about salad being made in the periodical rooms. The problem was solved by the early 1990s, when Kodak introduced polyester-based microfilm, which promised to resist decay for at least 500 years.