January 15, 2013

Sit back, relax, and enjoy your mechanical book reader


Old ideas are new again. Is that a real saying? Don’t think so, but it seems right in this case, in which we witness what very well may have been one of the earliest incarnations of the ereader.

The image below is from a 1935 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics that depicts a man sitting at his leisure while a machine magnifies text from a book using film and a lens; a button that automatically turns the book’s pages is conveniently located inches away from his chair’s armrest.

Sounds familiar, no?

In truth, the machine is more microfiche projector than ereader, but still, it’s interesting (and amusing) to see that as many as 80 years ago people were trying to improve and/or change the way we read: “Print is dead! The mechanical book reader spells the end of books as we know them!” —Media, c. 1935

This discovery first made the rounds on the internet last spring, but it’s worth looking at again, especially as we’re seeing more and more devices come to market, despite some analysts’ claims that the ereader is doomed.

According to Wikipedia, ereaders (or variations of them) have been around longer than you might expect:

The first e-book may be the Index Thomisticus, a heavily annotated electronic index to the works of Thomas Aquinas, prepared by Roberto Busa beginning in the late 1940s. However, this is sometimes omitted, perhaps because the digitized text was (at least initially) a means to developing an index and concordance, rather than as a published edition in its own right.

Some years earlier the idea of the e-reader came to Bob Brown after watching his first “talkie” (movies with sound). In 1930, he wrote an entire book on this invention and titled it “The Readies” playing off the idea of the “talkie”. In his book, Brown says that movies have out maneuvered the book by creating the “talkies” and as a result reading should find a new medium: A machine that will allow us to keep up with the vast volume of print available today and be optically pleasing (this was a big point for Brown).

Though Brown may have come up with the idea intellectually in the 1930s, early commercial e-readers did not follow his model. Nevertheless, Brown in many ways predicts what e-readers will become and what they will mean to the medium of reading. In an article Jennifer Schuessler writes, “The machine, Brown argued, would allow readers to adjust the type size, avoid paper cuts and save trees, all while hastening the day when words could be ‘recorded directly on the palpitating ether.'” However, Brown would likely have found our e-readers today to be much too bookish and not unique enough in their own right. He felt that the e-reader should bring a completely new life to the medium of reading. Schuessler relates it to a DJ spinning bits of old songs to create a beat or an entirely new song as opposed to just a remix of a familiar song.

Alternatively, some historians consider electronic books to have started in the early 1960s, with the NLS project headed by Doug Engelbart at Stanford Research Institute (SRI), and the Hypertext Editing System and FRESS projects headed by Andries van Dam at Brown University. Augment ran on specialized hardware, while FRESS ran on IBM mainframes. FRESS documents were structure-oriented rather than line-oriented, and were formatted dynamically for different users, display hardware, window sizes, and so on, as well as having automated tables of contents, indexes, and so on. All these systems also provided extensive hyperlinking, graphics, and other capabilities. Van Dam is generally thought to have coined the term “electronic book”, and it was established enough to use in an article title by 1985.





Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.