The e‑Book Imagined in 1935

What is the future of the book? Will it retain more or less the same basic paper-between-cov­ers form as it has since the days of the Guten­berg Bible? Will it go entire­ly dig­i­tal, becom­ing read­able only with com­pat­i­ble elec­tron­ic devices? Or will we, in the com­fort of our arm­chairs, read them on glass-screened micro­film pro­jec­tors? That last is the bet made, and illus­trat­ed as above, by the April 1935 issue of Every­day Sci­ence and Mechan­ics mag­a­zine. “It has proved pos­si­ble to pho­to­graph books, and throw them on a screen for exam­i­na­tion,” says the arti­cle envi­sion­ing “a device for apply­ing this for home use and instruc­tion,” exhumed by Matt Novak at

As The Atlantic’s Megan Gar­ber writes, “The whole thing, to our TV-and-tablet-jad­ed eyes, looks won­der­ful­ly quaint. (The pro­jec­tor! The knobs! The semi-redun­dant read­ing lamp! The smok­ing jack­et!)” But then, “what speaks to our cur­rent, hazy dreams of con­ver­gence more elo­quent­ly than the abil­i­ty to sit back, relax, and turn books into tele­vi­sion?”

And indeed, the orig­i­nal illus­tra­tion includes a cap­tion telling us how such a device will allow you to “read a ‘book’ (which is a roll of minia­ture film), music, etc., at your ease.” That may sound famil­iar to those of us who think noth­ing of flip­ping back and forth between books, web sites, movies, tele­vi­sion shows, and social media — all to our cus­tomized music-and-pod­cast sound­track of choice — on our com­put­ers, tablets, and phones today.

Every­day Sci­ence and Mechan­ics was­n’t look­ing into the dis­tant future. As Novak notes, micro­film had been patent­ed in 1895 and first prac­ti­cal­ly used in 1925; the New York Times began copy­ing its every edi­tion onto micro­film in 1935, the same year this arti­cle appeared. As imprac­ti­cal as it may look now, this home “e‑reader” could the­o­ret­i­cal­ly have been put into use not long there­after. As it hap­pened, the first e‑readers — the hand­held dig­i­tal ones of the kind we know today — would­n’t come on the mar­ket for anoth­er 70 years, and their wide­spread adop­tion has only occurred in the past decade. But for many, good old Guten­berg-style paper-between-cov­ers remains the way to read. It may be that the book has no one future form, but a vari­ety that will exist at once — a vari­ety that, absent a much stronger retro­fu­tur­ism revival, will prob­a­bly not include micro­film, ground-glass screens, and smok­ing jack­ets.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Read­ers Pre­dict in 1936 Which Nov­el­ists Would Still Be Wide­ly Read in the Year 2000

1930s Fash­ion Design­ers Pre­dict How Peo­ple Would Dress in the Year 2000

Did Stan­ley Kubrick Invent the iPad in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

9 Sci­ence-Fic­tion Authors Pre­dict the Future: How Jules Verne, Isaac Asi­mov, William Gib­son, Philip K. Dick & More Imag­ined the World Ahead

Napoleon’s Kin­dle: See the Minia­tur­ized Trav­el­ing Library He Took on Mil­i­tary Cam­paigns

Behold the “Book Wheel”: The Renais­sance Inven­tion Cre­at­ed to Make Books Portable & Help Schol­ars Study (1588)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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