I Found It at the JCB

This month

March 2010

The JCB Joins the Twentieth Century

by Leslie Tobias Olsen


Innovative Technology ca. 1910

Everyone knows the John Carter Brown Library honors the past, after all the motto circling its logo reads— “Speak to the past and it shall teach thee” (see image at left). But the Library has always looked to the future, as well. It has been at the forefront of many a technological innovation.

Case in point—the acquisition of a Photostat machine by the John Carter Brown Library. The machine shown here (taken from a booklet published in 1910) is the same model as the one still down in the Imaging Room. Well, pieces of the machine remain. The lens front rests on the microfilm cabinets and the book cradle of that machine was in use well into the twenty-first century. I have not found a record of when the machine was purchased, but the notes from the Committee of Management of the Library on 17 December 1912 report on the work of the Photostat machine, so it was acquired before that date.

For those of you who don’t know what a Photostat machine was, it was (and this is quoted from the Photostat booklet of 1910 from which the illustration at right was also taken) "a simple and practical machine for the rapid production of copy by means of photography.” It consisted of a large camera with a magazine for holding a roll of sensitized paper upon which the subject was photographed through a lens with prism attached. No intermediate negative was required. The paper, manufactured by Eastman Kodak Company, supposedly never faded.

Simple the Photostat machine may have been, but a price list from May 1960 includes some very pricy and mysterious components. A 70/105 mm. camera-projector is listed for $14,900.00 (!), a contact film printer for $1,900.00, an autofocus reader is $1,025.00, and a “conversion Kit for field conversion of negative process simplex equipment, pin bar, to positive process” is $1,995.00. —And people say today’s geeks don’t speak English. Certainly today's operators aren't generally quite so stylish (see figure, as it were, at left).

So the John Carter Brown Library may well speak to the past, but at the same time it looks to the future. It looked to the future around the time of its founding as a non-private library and it looks to the future today.

Leslie Tobias Olsen works at the John Carter Brown Library in the Imaging Department.

John Carter Brown Library
Brown University
Box 1894
Providence, Rhode Island 02912
Tel: 401.863.2725
Fax: 401.863.3477

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