A Summer in Italy, 1929 (part 3)

Incidents at the Congress

Braille materials (left) and photostat machine in the Biblioteconomia exhibition.

A few snippets illustrative of the Congress and Bob’s place in it:

It seems that some papers were read outside the official section meetings, to whatever audience could be assembled. Bob refers condescendingly to one read by “a little girl from the Morgan Library who … had written her paper as if it were a bedtime story”.1 This must be Meta Harrsen,2 whose paper was subsequently published as “The Countess Judith of Flanders and the Library of Weingarten Abbey”3 According to Harrsen’s n.1 the paper was given on June 19, which was the day of the meetings of Sections 3 and 6. Bob attended both of those, and so could only have heard this paper later in the afternoon or evening. He says the room was almost empty, so it couldn’t have been part of the Section meeting.

Bob indulged the off-colour side of his sense of humour in the account of this paper that he wrote for his friends in New York, pretending to confuse the word “codex” (a manuscript book) with a brand name which I did not realize dated to the 1920s:

… after she had read her paper for a few moments I started. Could I believe my ears? Yes, she had undoubtedly used the word, in a context I could not understand. I suppressed my blushes and tried to look indifferent, but then she used it again. It was terrible. She was talking about kotex this and kotex that, and how this kotex was derived from that kotex, and how the kotex Vaticanus was the oldest and the best. I shouldn’t think they would have it in the Vatican, and I was surprised to hear that the oldest was the best, but she went on and on. She says that other good kotices are to be found in the monasteries, and that she had found an especially interesting one at the Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino. I tell you, girls, it just proves that if one wishes to understand the Middle Ages one must come over here.4

Bob may have stretched the truth for the sake of the joke: the paper as published does not refer to a Vatican manuscript (though it does mention one from Montecassino), and it does not use the word “codex”, but rather “manuscript” or “MS”.

Sidney Robertson Cowell recounted in a 1982 letter that Bob met a photographer named Solomon at the Congress, whose use of 35mm film showed that such pictures could be greatly enlarged, and that this started Bob thinking that such a camera could be used to reproduce documents.5 This must refer to the famous photojournalist Erich Salomon, whose candid photos of officials at international conferences were widely published from 1927 on. At this point, however, Salomon was still using an Ermanox camera which took 4.5x6cm plates (he switched to a Leica after 1930). The advantage of the Ermanox was that it could take interior shots without studio lights (thanks to its large lens), which enabled Salomon’s paparazzi-style approach. I haven’t found evidence that Salomon was in Rome in the summer of 1929, but the shot of Mussolini (see part 2), as well as the shot of the Papal reception,6 are in his style, in that they are unposed and use available light. These seem to be official photos, though, for the Mussolini picture was also published with Koch’s account of the Congress in the Library Journal. If Salomon wasn’t at the Congress, it’s possible that Sidney’s memory was based on something Bob said about, say, seeing Salomon’s work in a European magazine during that summer.

Though he does not much remark on it, Bob saw (or at least learned of) a revolutionary device in the Biblioteconomia exhibition: an apparatus for the reading and projecting of microphotographic images. At Stanford in 1925 he and his brother Charles had collaborated on the design of such a device and come close to applying for a patent (this will be the subject of a future posting in this blog). Now Bob wrote to Charles:

It will interest you to hear that the scheme for reproducing documents on movie film has been adopted by the Library of Congress for copying archives [a reference to Project A], and that a device not unlike the one we were playing with for reading by projection was exhibited here at the Library Congress. There is certainly a good idea in our old scheme, but it is equally certain that it will require more than we have to develop it. So I am now working to get the Bureau of Standards to develop something of the kind. Did I send you a copy of the memorandum I sent in on the subject.7

(It’s not clear whether Bob saw the apparatus or just heard about it. The exhibition was not well-attended, since it only opened on the final day of the Rome sessions, June 20.)8

The question is, what apparatus was exhibited? There were very few on the market in 1929. The only clue in the Proceedings is an entry among the French exhibits:

La Fotografia: Apparecchi di lettura e proiezioni di microfotografie.9

In other entries, the initial phrase in italics is the name of a library or company, suggesting in this case a French company named “La Photographie”. I haven’t found such a company making microfilm equipment at the time. My theory is that this is an error for a Paris company with the unfamiliar name “La Photoscopie”, whose product was called a Photoscope.

Digression: History of “La Photoscopie”

The Photoscope (1929)

La Photoscopie has not received the attention it deserves in the history of the development of microfilm. I have only begun to sort out the complex history of this company: it seems to have been connected with a Brussels company of the same name, founded in 1924 by Robert Goldschmidt (the co-author with Paul Otlet of the seminal 1906 article proposing microfiche books).10 Goldschmidt seems not to have put much of his own time into the company, being preoccupied in the late 1920s with his schemes for developing telegraph communications in the Belgian Congo. On Goldschmidt’s death in 1936, the company was taken over by his son Benedict. The relationship between the Brussels and Paris companies is mysterious: I haven’t found any source that alludes to both of them. The biography of Goldschmidt in the Belgian Biographie Nationale mentions that he “had activities in France parallel to those he had in Belgium, which deserve to be researched on the spot, but the traces they have left are vague and difficult to follow.”11 Perhaps La Photoscopie was among them.

Goldschmidt moved to Paris in 1930;12 but the Paris firm was already active as early as 1927, when it advertised a machine à lire that projected still images from standard cinematic film, and a collection of images on film to support courses in art history.13 At the same time Albert Crémieux, who seems to have run the Paris firm, published an article in Revue d’histoire moderne describing the company and the uses to which the photoscopic process could be put in the field of history: transcription of documents for personal use and collaboration, the creation of photographic archives (including by international collaboration), the publication of document collections, learned journals, etc., and for teaching.14 In 1928, La Photoscopie was visited by the Committee of Library Experts of the League of Nations International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation, who were investigating the potential of microphotography for reproducing texts.15 It issued its first catalogue of microfilm publications in December, 1928.16

La Photoscopie seems to have started a publicity campaign in the summer of 1929. In Paris, only a few days before the Congress began, L’Européen carried an account of a reporter’s visit to the company offices in Rue Jouffroy. The company was now sponsoring lectures broadcast by radio from the Eiffel Tower, to be synchronized with a slide show of projected images. The reporter heard a lecture by M. Crémieux on the beauties of Chartres (“Advance to No. 4. Are you sure you’re on No. 4?”) By this time the company had 13,000 illustrations and 5,500 texts or notices in its collection, and was considering a press service that would send out photoscopic editions on subscription. The reporter considered it a revolution for libraries comparable to the effect of the invention of the airplane on transportation.17 The news was picked up by American papers; the Painesville (Ohio) Telegraph, for example, carried the story: “One foresees the straphanger enjoying his evening paper as projected on the back of his fellow traveler. And the tabloids will become lively motion pictures of the late murders, divorces and kidnappings.”18 The French popular science magazine La science et la vie carried a feature on photoscopie in October (the source of the photograph above).19 In November The British Journal of Photography mentioned the radio lectures synchronized with slide shows as a weekly occurrence in recent months. According to the brief note, “the Bibliothèque Nationale contemplates the installation of a special hall in which reproductions of original manuscripts and of rare books may be studied by this means, whilst avoiding any handling of the valuable originals. It is also intended to arrange an exchange of films with the other great libraries.”20

The entry in the Congress exhibition catalogue uses the plural “apparecchi”, as if there were more than one apparatus on display. La Photoscopie seems to have produced at least two different projectors. One, illustrated above, used a rod clamped to the edge of a table to support a small projector, which could be directed downwards to the desktop or horizontally to a screen or wall. The other was more like a conventional slide projector, but was still capable of being turned downwards. It is not clear when they came to market with different versions, however. At the IXme Exposition de la Photo et du Cinéma in early 1932 they showed three models, but some at least were new.21 The best source of pictures I have found is eBay, where photoscopes are occasionally offered (one of which I purchased); but the machines themselves do not seem to carry dates.


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