Fiske Reading Machine: The 1920s Predecessor for the Kindle
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Fiske Reading Machine: The 1920s Predecessor for the Kindle

The Sony Librie, the first e-reader to use a modern electronic paper screen, came out in 2004. As old as it is in the technological years, the basic idea of ​​a handheld device being able to store large amounts of text spanned at least eight decades. further back in history. Witness the Fiske Reading Machine, an invention first profiled in the 1922 edition scientific america. “The instrument, consisting of a small lens and a small roller for operating this eyepiece up and down a vertical column of reading material, is a device used for ordinary handwritten copies, when photographically reduced to one hundredth of the space originally occupied, can be read with sufficient facilities that the impression of a conventional type of print is now revealed to the naked eye,” writes author SR Winters.

Making books compatible with Fiske Reading Machines certainly involves not digitizing, but miniaturizing. According to a patent filed by inventor Bradley Allen Fiske (eleven in all, between 1920 and 1935), the text of any book could be photographically engraved on a block of copper, reduced ten times in the process, and then printed on a piece of paper. for use in machines, which would make them readable again through a magnifying lens. A single magnifying lens, i.e.: “The eye patch, which is attached to the machine, can be operated to block the view of the unused eye.” (Winters adds that “the use of both eyes will inevitably involve a more complex construction of the reading machine unit than the current design.”)

“Fiske believes he has single-handedly revolutionized the publishing industry,” wrote J. Rigg of Engadget. “Thanks to his ingenuity, books and magazines can be produced at very low prices. The cost of materials, pressing, shipping, and storage loads can also be reduced. He envisioned the magazine being able to be distributed by mail at almost no cost, and most powerfully, that publishing in its format would allow everyone access to educational and entertainment material regardless of their income level. Considering how the relationship between reader and reading material eventually developed, not thanks to the copper block and magnifying glass and small pieces of paper, but thanks to computers and the internet, it seems that Fiske was ahead of his time.

Unfortunately, the Fiske Reading Machine itself is on the wrong side of the history of technology. Even as Fiske perfected his designs, “microfilm was gaining popularity,” and “while initially finding its feet in the business world — to record canceled checks, for example — in 1935 Kodak began publishing The New York Times on 35mm microfilm.” Despite the format’s soon-to-be-accomplished absolute prevalence in the archiving world, “the lust for mini-novels and handheld readers never materialized as Fiske envisioned.” Also, of course, he couldn’t imagine the digital, electronic paper, and streamlined but very broad forms that e-readers had to take before finding success in the marketplace—but somehow without displacing paper books quite as even he knew them.

via Engadget

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcastst about cities, languages, and cultures. The project includes a Substack newsletter Books about the City, book The Stateless City: A Journey through 21st Century Los Angeles and video series City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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