Smart Machines

The geometric growth of PC storage capacity has sparked vigorous debate about the future of print. Why kill trees and strain muscles, say the proponents of digital texts, when you can carry around a library in your briefcase?

This seemingly new argument actually began in the 1930s with the commercialization of a technology for miniaturizing print on film. Microphotography--or microfilm--reduced the size of printed text by 94%, so that it was legible only with a special projector or reading apparatus. The reels on which the film was stored used only one-tenth the space of the paper text.

Saving paper and storage space was appealing during the Great Depression. But microphotography also held out hope--as digital text does today--of revolutionizing information access and research. Leading librarians predicted the eclipse of printed books. "Is the library world witnessing transition from the volume form of the book to roll form...?" asked library expert Harry Miller Lyndenberg. Few embraced microphotography as warmly as M. Llewellyn Raney, chairman of the American Library Association's Committee on Photographic Reproduction of Library Materials. "The camera begins to cast a long shadow in the world of books," he observed in 1936. Later he grew intrigued with the idea of a portable library, foreseeing scenarios like this: "A newcomer steps off the train with a suitcase carrying the whole journal record of a subject, and there maintains his mastery."

Large experiments proliferated. The International Filmbook Corp. geared up to sell books on film, starting with a diminutive edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Recordak Corp. developed a film-roll version of the New York Times for the World War I era. Meanwhile, independent researchers could buy a lightweight camera, prompting one expert to predict that for "the next generation of scholars," the portable microfilm camera would be "as indispensable as the typewriter."

That didn't happen, although microfilm became the preferred medium for archiving newspapers and government and historical documents. Still, parallels with the present day are striking. Microphotography's advocates fretted about copyright entanglements, durability, and standardization. They argued that the best way to bring "large blocks of source materials... under command" was through cooperative filming projects reminiscent of today's project-based Web archives. And they recognized that "librarians and readers...will need psychological as well as physical changes to fit themselves for the new conditions"--an apt description of the adjustments wrought by laptops.

Even on the hardware side, microphotography foreshadowed portable computing. Raney recommended researchers buy a microphotography reader ($75 in 1938) or a wall projector ($32.50), and a Photorecord camera ($265). The portable version of the camera weighed 19 pounds and could fit into a handbag with a diagonal of 23 inches.

Do those specifications sound familiar? They should--they're remarkably similar to those of first-generation laptops.

David B. Sicilia is an assistant professor of business and technology history at the University of Maryland, College Park.