The Fiske Reading Machine: The 1920s Precursor to the Kindle

The Sony Lib­rie, the first e‑reader to use a mod­ern elec­tron­ic-paper screen, came out in 2004. Old as that is in tech years, the basic idea of a hand­held device that can store large amounts of text stretch­es at least eight decades far­ther back in his­to­ry. Wit­ness the Fiske Read­ing Machine, an inven­tion first pro­filed in a 1922 issue of Sci­en­tif­ic Amer­i­can. “The instru­ment, con­sist­ing of a tiny lens and a small roller for oper­at­ing this eye­piece up and down a ver­ti­cal col­umn of read­ing-mat­ter, is a means by which ordi­nary type­writ­ten copy, when pho­to­graph­i­cal­ly reduced to one-hun­dredth of the space orig­i­nal­ly occu­pied, can be read with quite the facil­i­ty that the impres­sion of con­ven­tion­al print­ing type is now revealed to the unaid­ed eye,” writes author S. R. Win­ters.

Mak­ing books com­pat­i­ble with the Fiske Read­ing Machine involved not dig­i­ti­za­tion, of course, but minia­tur­iza­tion. Accord­ing to the patents filed by inven­tor Bradley Allen Fiske (eleven in all, between 1920 and 1935), the text of any book could be pho­to-engraved onto a cop­per block, reduced ten times in the process, and then print­ed onto strips of paper for use in the machine, which would make them read­able again through a mag­ni­fy­ing lens. A sin­gle mag­ni­fy­ing lens, that is: “A blind­er, attached to the machine, can be oper­at­ed in obstruct­ing the view of the unused eye.” (Win­ters adds that “the use of both eyes will doubt­less involve the con­struc­tion of a unit of the read­ing machine more elab­o­rate than the present design.”)

“Fiske believed he had sin­gle-hand­ed­ly rev­o­lu­tion­ized the pub­lish­ing indus­try,” writes Engad­get’s J. Rigg. “Thanks to his inge­nu­ity, books and mag­a­zines could be pro­duced for a frac­tion of their cur­rent price. The cost of mate­ri­als, press­es, ship­ping and the bur­den of stor­age could also be slashed. He imag­ined mag­a­zines could be dis­trib­uted by post for next to noth­ing, and most pow­er­ful­ly, that pub­lish­ing in his for­mat would allow every­one access to edu­ca­tion­al mate­r­i­al and enter­tain­ment no mat­ter their lev­el of income.” Con­sid­er­ing how the rela­tion­ship between read­ers and read­ing mate­r­i­al ulti­mate­ly evolved, thanks not to cop­per blocks and mag­ni­fiers and tiny strips of paper but to com­put­ers and the inter­net, it seems that Fiske was a man ahead of his time.

Alas, the Fiske Read­ing Machine itself was just on the wrong side of tech­no­log­i­cal his­to­ry. Even as Fiske was refin­ing its design, “micro­film was begin­ning to catch on,” and “while it ini­tial­ly found its feet in the busi­ness world — for keep­ing record of can­celled checks, for exam­ple — by 1935 Kodak had begun pub­lish­ing The New York Times on 35mm micro­film.” Despite the absolute preva­lence that for­mat soon attained in the world of archiv­ing, “the appetite for minia­tur­ized nov­els and hand­held read­ers nev­er mate­ri­al­ized in the way Fiske had imag­ined.” Nor, sure­ly, could he have imag­ined the form the dig­i­tal, elec­tron­ic-paper-screened, and slim yet huge­ly capa­cious form that the e‑reader would have to take before find­ing suc­cess in the mar­ket­place — yet some­how with­out quite dis­plac­ing the paper book as even he knew it.

via Engad­get

Relat­ed con­tent:

The e‑Book Imag­ined in 1935

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 Sev­er­al Books at Once (1588)

The Page Turn­er: A Fab­u­lous Rube Gold­berg Machine for Read­ers

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, 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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