Culture Machine, Vol 5 (2003)

CM2003 Article: Clinton

BOOK 2.0

Ted Striphas

On October 4, 1995, [Jim] Sachs asked his wife to take a snapshot of him tinkering in his garage with a sheet of acrylic and some sprinkler tubing. In the theater of destiny, it never hurts to back up your creation myth with a hard copy. The object he cobbled together was a representation of a handheld device for reading and storing reference books, trade journals, case law, magazines, newsletters, even novels -- any kind of text. . . . A digital book.

-- Steve Silberman,'Ex Libris: The Joys of Curling Up With a Good Digital Reading Device'1

With characteristic fanfare for all things technologically sublime, Wired magazine reported in 1998 on the impending release of 'Book 2.0' -- digital electronic book technologies or ebooks -- in U.S. consumer markets (Silberman, 1998, n. p.).2 Like the legendary stories of Leibniz and Newton, who developed calculus simultaneously, each unaware of one another's work, Wired began its report by chronicling a series of coincidental 'firsts' in the creation of the putative heir apparent to print-on-paper books. One such story is that of Jim Sachs, who 'dream[ed] of nudging the world a step forward' when he developed Apple's first computer mouse, and who was'betting that he'[d] had another one of those dreams' with the SoftBook, the trade name for the ebook device he first tinkered with in his garage (Silberman, 1998, n. p.). Daniel Munyan, meanwhile, was hard at work on a digital reading device he eventually would call the Everybook. The idea for the Everybook, Wired observed, occurred to Munyan in a rush of feverish inspiration -- the kind that only seems to grip geniuses on the threshold of a truly unique innovation:

Munyan's inklings for a new form of book visited him in flight, stacked up over Detroit. Watching a passenger fidget around in his seat to angle a book under the overhead light, Munyan had a full-scale epiphany: five minutes of revelation about how such a book would work and how digital texts could be piped in and out of it, followed by six pages of note-taking.(Silberman, 1998)

Notwithstanding a passing reference to the Sony Bookman, a digital ebook device introduced in the U.S. in 1992, ebooks appear to have fallen out of the sky as far as Wired is concerned . . . or so the story goes.

I am, in general, deeply mistrustful of histories in which technologies are heralded as radical innovations and/or the products of singular geniuses overtaken by a blast of creative inspiration. Like Wired's history of ebooks, these kinds of accounts convey a sense in which technologies are created ex nihilo, completely without history. They downplay or displace, in other words, the social, economic, and cultural determinations that bear upon the emergence of specific technologies, by privileging the inventor as their sole progenitor. Worse, they efface the struggles that accompany the development and emergence of most, perhaps all, social/technological forms.

The title for this essay, 'Book 2.0', is an ironic attempt to mark still another persistent problem in the historiography of technology: namely, the tendency to reduce the complex and dynamic relationships among technologies to a singular, static relation. Jonathan Sterne points out, for example, how the history of sound reproduction technologies tends to be written in terms of their fidelity to some 'original' -- usually 'live' -- performance (Sterne, 1999: 233-237). The products of these technologies, he argues, often get positioned as inferior copies or imitations of an original, apparently more authentic, interaction with sound, as though a 'live' musical performance at a concert hall were not also a highly structured, technologized, and mediated sound event. (Consider, for instance, how concert halls are designed and built for acoustics, the purposeful arrangement of instruments within an orchestral ensemble, the use of microphones and public address systems, etc.) Sterne thus wants to emphasize that although one ought to write the history of sound reproduction technologies bearing in mind their relationship to live sound events, one should not reduce the history of sound reproduction technologies to that relationship alone -- as though the 'live' and the 'recorded' share a necessary ontological connection. What also interests Sterne are the conditions under which sound recordings come to be thought of and talked about as degraded copies or reproductions of a putative 'original', rather than as instances of sound's production in their own right (Sterne, 1999: 233).

I think a useful parallel might be drawn between the ways in which the history of sound reproduction is conventionally written and how the history of ebooks has been written thus far. In referring to ebook technologies as 'Book 2.0', Wired seems to assume a necessary relationship between ebooks and print-on-paper books. Ebooks, that is to say, at best build and improve upon, and at worst poorly imitate, many of the formal characteristics and experiences people commonly associate with the 'original' printed book. Consider, for example, journalist Steve Silberman's (1998) ambivalent account of reading Kakuzo Okakura's The Book of Tea on a Rocket eBook. 'I won't be returning this Book of Tea to its little slipcase on my shelf', he writes. 'I miss the way the printed book's type, with its tiny irregularities, is a Western equivalent of the wayward bristles that make a brush stroke more living than a line. But through the text -- the bits -- alone, Okakura's mind speaks' (n. p.).

Characterizations such as these are not unique to popular accounts of ebooks; they carry over into scholarly writings on the subject as well. For all its theoretical sophistication and grounding in book history, Jay David Bolter's Writing Space persists in presenting ebooks largely as 'remediated' or technologically refashioned copies of print-on-paper books. He argues:

One class of information appliances is positioned explicitly to replace the paged book: an example is the Rocket eBook. As its web-based advertising indicates, the eBook appropriates and refashions many of the physical properties as well as the 'interface' of a traditional book. . . . As with any remediation, however, the eBook must promise something more than the form it remediates: it must offer what can be construed as more immediate, complete, or authentic experience for the reader. (Bolter, 2001: 79-80)

Bolter's argument, while provocative, remains a fairly obvious one. The technologies in question are called ebooks, after all, and it seems clear from this passage that ebook manufacturers are only too eager to emphasize that connection. Bolter's thesis offers a useful starting point from which to begin to interrogate the relationship between print-on-paper books and electronic book technologies. Yet it explains very little beyond what can be discerned readily from ebook advertisements and reduces their relationship to a formal one. What other relationships and understandings, I wonder, might emerge from a more rigorously historicized and contextualized account of ebooks, one which refuses to treat their relationship to what Bolter calls 'a traditional book' necessarily as a privileged reference point?

To put it differently, a common limitation of both popular and scholarly writings on ebook technologies is their tendency to overlook the associations of ebooks with a broad range of technological forms, socioeconomic relationships, and historical processes. In this essay I attempt to address and fill in some of these gaps by constructing a genealogy of ebooks. Ebooks, I contend, are not merely artifacts of the 'digital age', nor are they simply the technological shadows of modern printed books. Rather, I argue, the history of ebooks has as much, if not more, to do with the gradual emergence of industrial manufacturing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the development of photographic process and cinema in the nineteenth century, and television's introduction and attendant transformations in the twentieth century. More specifically, I examine these relationships by mapping the ways in which ebook technologies are implicated in and conditioned by discourses and technologies of miniaturization -- not just by print-on-paper books, in other words. I conclude by considering the implications of this genealogy to practices of media historiography. Here I introduce and elaborate on the term 'intermediation' to underscore the importance of studying the discursive relationships among a plurality of media and communication technologies.3

Ebooks: A Dissident's History

The emergence of the printing press and printed book technologies in the West is often taken to be 'revolutionary', and indeed there is no shortage of studies attesting to the social, psychological, political, and economic 'impact' of this professed 'revolution'.4 When considering ebooks historically, however, it is important to bear in mind the continuing unevenness of this 'revolution', as a possible way in which to begin interrogating their conditions of possibility. As classicist James J. O'Donnell observes, histories of printed book technologies in the West often tell the story of this 'revolution' by privileging the gradual diffusion and acceptance of these technologies in and across Western societies (1996: 40; see, for example, Febvre and Martin, 1976). But in the rush to assess the effects of the printing press and printed books, he maintains, these studies often downplay efforts to resist their spread:

The introduction of movable type made a revolution, no question. That story has been often and movingly told. It bears remarking that the story of that revolution is regularly told in print by partisans of the revolution. It may very well be that this revolution was a good thing, but any historical event recounted entirely by partisans is open to reconsideration: . . . who didn't like the technology of print, and why didn't they like it? (O'Donnell, 1996: 40; emphasis in original)

Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, while a rigorous intellectual history in most respects, nevertheless is exemplary of this resistance to resistance. For instance, she discusses the story of Federigo of Urbino, a prominent fifteenth century Italian Duke, whose refusal to introduce printed books into his manuscript collection, some historians have argued, suggests how Renaissance humanists may have opposed the spread of 'vulgar machine-made' printed books (Eisenstein, 1979: 48). Eisenstein dismisses this argument out of hand, however, claiming that the Duke's opposition to printed books was an 'atypical', and thus historically insignificant, response to the diffusion of these technologies (1979: 48-49).5 Of course, within the context of a historical narrative intent on explaining how the printing press occasioned change, localized efforts to resist change are bound to come off as 'atypical';6 resistance does not always lend itself to typicality. So in addition to the questions O'Donnell poses in the passage above, I would add three more: what were the effects of resistance to print? In what ways, if any, do these effects persist? And what is the relationship of resistance to printed book technologies to ebooks?

The printing 'revolution' was not universally embraced, nor was it necessarily seen to be an improvement over monastic or lay scribal work during the first century of printed book technologies in Europe. 'Writing', O'Donnell notes, was 'the spiritual manual labor par excellence' (1996: 45), which contrasted sharply with the ethos of print: 'a business that flourished in the less salubrious parts of town, among grubby businessmen unafraid of dirty hands' (1996: 46). Indeed, far from the genteel profession it would become by the eighteenth century, printing initially was seen to be a somewhat disreputable enterprise. Impropriety seems to have been the rule rather than the exception, resulting in a preponderance of unauthorized editions and myriad related acts of textual 'piracy' perpetrated by early printers (Johns, 1998: 31).7 Rampant textual corruption, meanwhile, followed from a general inattention among early printers to such matters as spelling, punctuation, layout, authorship, accuracy of translation, and so forth.8 Taken together, early European printers' reputation and carelessness -- whether real, imagined, or both -- helped fuel the perception that they were 'slapdash artisans' compared to their scribal counterparts (O'Donnell, 1996: 4). The credibility and value of early printed books suffered in turn (Johns, 1998: 30-31; O'Donnell, 1996: 42).

Nevertheless, it is clear that the printing press and printed book technologies both articulated and were articulated by changing relations of production in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and beyond (Eisenstein, 1979: 410-421). They were part and parcel, that is to say, of a much larger shift in which handicraft gradually began giving way to mechanical (and later full-fledged industrial) production processes, possibly beginning with the replacement of scribes and illuminators (Eisenstein, 1979: 50-51, 54-55; McLuhan, 1994: 174). For this shift to occur, however, many changes first had to take place, including the establishment of the credibility of printed books. Printers thus began championing the 'superior' accuracy and preservative powers of printed book technologies over manuscripts beginning in the sixteenth century (Johns, 1998: 5). And while it is not altogether clear that printed editions were any less corrupted or corruptible than manuscripts -- indeed, there is good evidence to suggest that textual corruption multiplied in the first century of print in Europe (Johns, 1998: 31) -- their efforts were fairly successful, it seems, in gradually bolstering the trustworthiness of printed book technologies and justifying the new mechanical production processes.

Regardless of a manuscript's size, its production in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries generally involved intensive bodily skill and artistry -- above all, long hours of intense concentration coupled with painstaking handwork. Manuscripts were thus marked by the idiosyncrasies of the particular hands that had produced them, which in turn helped to define their uniqueness or difference from other manuscripts, including those that consisted of ostensibly the 'same' text (Stewart, 1993: 38-39). Typography and printed book technologies, however, helped to undermine these conditions of production and this economy of difference, in part by gradually eroding the need for handwriting and illumination -- that is to say, a more fully embodied process of book production.

In the late fifteenth century, miniature manuscript books composed of tiny writing, or micrographia, began appearing in Europe, and their production lasted at least into the seventeenth century. Professional and amateur scribes started making these little manuscripts, Susan Stewart argues, in response to the changing conditions of book production in sixteenth century Europe. 'Minute writing is emblematic of craft and discipline', she remarks. '[W]hile the materiality of the object is diminished, the labor multiplies' (1993: 38). Paradoxically, the excessively small size of miniature manuscripts exaggerated the rigorous manual dexterity involved in their production. Thus, Stewart argues, they helped throw the more mechanical processes of printed book production that were taking hold in Europe into sharp relief. They also marked the transition from an economy of difference to an economy of similitude with respect to the value of book technologies. The labor involved in producing miniature manuscripts, Stewart observes, 'was the labor of the hand, of the body, and the product, in its uniqueness, was a stay against repetition' (1993: 39).

The production of miniature manuscripts, in other words, was a measure to resist printed book technologies and the larger changes they implied with regard to processes of production, or at the very least to preserve traditional scribal practices. 'Whereas industrial labor is marked by the prevalence of repetition over skill and part over whole, the miniature object represents an antithetical mode of production: production by the hand, a production that is unique' (Stewart, 1993: 68). Shortly after the first miniature manuscripts were produced in the late fifteenth century, however, printers began turning out editions in sizes smaller than the customary folios and quartos that had dominated printed book production, and eventually began printing miniature editions of their own: most often, almanacs and bibles. They did so in part to demonstrate how skill and precision -- craftpersonship -- persisted in their trade, despite their growing reliance on mechanical aids. The result of their labors was a book technology that seemed to bridge two competing modes of production -- a new genre of media marked by its doubleness. As Stewart notes, 'the miniature [printed] book is a celebration of the new technology, yet a nostalgic creation endowed with the significance the manuscript formerly possessed' (1993: 39).

Miniature books, whether handwritten or printed, generally measured only a few inches square and only a fraction of an inch thick. Some were even smaller than the face of a postage stamp. In addition to highlighting the continuing influence of handicraft, then, their minute size allowed people to transport them with relative ease. Miniature books were meant to be toted around in handbags or slipped discretely into a pocket; others were fashioned into rings and other types of jewelry, and were intended to be displayed upon one's body wherever one traveled (Stewart, 1993: 40-42). Miniature manuscripts and printed editions thus were doubly articulated to the body. Their size, one the one hand, indexed the care, precision, and intensive bodily labor it took to produce them. On the other hand, it allowed them to be carried conveniently on or with one's body, and, consequently, to be incorporated with minimal effort into one's daily routines.

Miniature book technologies, however, were not only bodily accoutrements. They also were meant to be read, which required the use of instruments to magnify the tiny text. Optical lenses (e.g. eyeglasses) are an almost taken-for-granted technological accompaniment to book technologies for many of us today (except, perhaps, when we misplace them). Yet their application to book technologies was neither an inevitable nor an obvious occurrence. As late as the early-thirteenth century, physicians still spoke of myopia as an incurable ailment, and it was only later in that century that scribal monks began making use of simple lenses in their work (Clay & Court, 1932: 4-5). Roger Bacon, for one, attested to the value of applying convex lenses directly atop manuscript text in order to augment its apparent size:

If one looks at letters or other minute things through the medium of a crystal or glass or other lens put over the letters, and if it is the smaller portion of a sphere of which the convexity is towards the eye, and the eye is in the air, he will see the letters much better and they will appear larger to him . . . and therefore this instrument is useful to old men and to those having feeble sight. For they can better see a letter, or anything small, in sufficient size. (cited in Clay & Court, 1932: 5)

Handheld magnifying glasses followed shortly thereafter. Eyeglasses, an extension of these early optical technologies, were introduced in Europe around the beginning of the fourteenth century and quickly gained in popularity, notably among monks (Clay & Court, 1932: 5). Optical enlarging devices and book technologies thus shared a fairly longstanding association by the time miniature books arrived on the scene in the late fifteenth/early sixteenth centuries.

Miniature books, therefore, depended upon a changing mode of production and the articulation of optical enlarging devices to book technologies. Yet they also occasioned and were occasioned by further intellectual and technological transformations that took hold in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Elizabeth Eisenstein has shown, the emergence of printed book technologies (and by extension miniature books) was closely allied to the emergence of early 'modern' science. By freeing individuals from the 'slavish' work of copying, she argues, the printing press helped enable people to read and cross-reference a broader array of texts than hitherto had been possible. The shift from intensive copying to extensive reading in turn opened opportunities for reinterpreting existing observations about natural phenomena while pursuing new lines of inquiry (Eisenstein, 1979: 72, 475-476, 579).

This emergent, strongly text-based, system of investigation posed a serious epistemological challenge to renaissance empiricists, whose work was defined above all by a commitment to studying the natural world (the so-called 'book of nature') directly through one's senses. They were wary, that is to say, of knowledge gleaned 'indirectly' through manuscripts and printed books, and/or with the help of auxiliary sensory aids, believing that these devices distorted one's relationship to the natural world and thus jaundiced any knowledge that could be gleaned from it (Wilson, 1988: 96). Yet, Eisenstein has argued that 'competition between profit-driving [sic] printers -- no less than collaboration among scattered observers -- helped to accelerate data collection and push it along new paths' (1979: 600). These pressures, in conjunction with the declining need to hand copy, were integral in terms of encouraging inchoate scientists to abandon the methodology of renaissance empiricism. Besides referring more frequently to manuscripts and printed books, this new crop of researchers, including Galileo Galilei, Robert Hooke, and others, intensified their experimentation with technologies to extend the range of human perception -- particularly those involving optics (Jay, 1993: 65).

It is no coincidence, then, that Stewart writes: 'The miniature book speaks from the convention of print, but, just as importantly, from the invention of the microscope' (1993: 40). Microscopes emerged in Europe in the early 1700s, about a century after the first miniature books were produced. Both technologies were conditioned by a specific articulation of the relationship between scale and knowledge: i.e. that tiny 'worlds' could be magnified to reveal hidden information. To more fully appreciate the conditions of possibility of ebooks, I believe, it is also useful to look at the relationship of the microscope and photography. Photography, like handwriting or printing, might be conceived of as a technology of 'inscription',9 and indeed the articulation of microscopy to photography in part made possible something like miniature photographic books.

In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce produced what is widely held to be the first permanent photograph, a grainy scene depicting the view from his window in Gras, France. Experiments in photographic process continued apace in Europe and North America over the ensuing decades, resulting in numerous methods for creating and preserving photographic images. Among the early processes were the daguerreotype, calotype, and talbotype, and another, perhaps lesser known set of techniques that came to be called microphotography. While microphotographic processes have varied since they were introduced in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, in general they consist of two principal features: first, the production of microscopic photographic images by means of extremely short focal length lenses affixed to cameras; and second, the use of microscopes to enlarge these images, so that their detail is rendered visible to the human eye.10

In 1839, John Benjamin Dancer, a British manufacturer of optical instruments, whose major claim to fame had been his technical contributions to the calcium spotlight or limelight, produced a one-eighth inch photographic image of a twenty-inch long handbill (Who is author here?] 'Dancer's Priority', 1976: 89; Luther, 1976: 141). In the years that followed, Dancer experimented widely not only with chemical photographic processes and materials, but also with various optical technologies to achieve sharper resolution and more powerful reduction and enlargement in both photography and microscopy. What today might seem like a rather macabre footnote to the history of ebook technologies are his experiments with the eyeballs of 'recently killed animals', which he hypothesized would prove superior to the ground glass lenses customarily used in microscopes (Luther, 1976: 142). (They didn't!)

In any event, an 1859 article in the British Photographic Journal indicated that Dancer had 'paid considerable attention to the subject [of microphotography], and produced much more minute and perfect specimens, copies from pictures and photographs from nature in great variety ' -- including microphotographic portraits of the British royal family, which were commissioned by the Queen ([Here, too] 'Dancer's Priority', 1976: 90). Still, Dancer did not confine his microphotographic work exclusively to portraiture or landscapes. He also began producing minute photographic images of printed books, or at least pages thereof, in part to evidence improvements in the technical capabilities of microphotographic reduction. Thus Photographic Journal reported:

[A] number of specimens taken by Mr. Dancer were . . . exhibited to the members by the aid of a microscope. Amongst them were the following, prepared specially for the occasion: A page of printing, from Quekett's 'Treatise on the Microscope', reduced to such size that the whole of the volume of 560 pages could be contained in a space one inch long and half-an-inch broad -- the page contained 2,118 letters … Two pages of Queckett 's'Treatise on the Microscope' [were] reduced to one-sixteen hundredth part of a superficial inch; they included 3,631 letters, and at the same rate the whole volume could be contained in a space of three-eighths of an inch square. This specimen excited considerable attention, being so exceedingly minute, notwithstanding which every letter was perfectly sharp and legible as the original printing, under a high magnifying power. ([And again] 'Dancer's Priority', 1976: 90)

It is not clear whether Dancer planned to produce complete microphotographic editions of printed books, or whether he simply photographed printed pages as a convenient way of testing the resolution of his lenses. Nevertheless, in 1859, the British Photographic Journal at leastforesaw the possibility of microphotographic books.

It is worth pointing out that microscopy was considered by many early modern scientists and philosophers to be a frivolous activity. As Catherine Wilson has shown, an initial period of excitement about and interest in microscopy in the early seventeenth century was followed by close to two centuries in which its value for scientific inquiry was largely dismissed by both groups:

The microscope [was] represented in the late seventeenth-century literature as a useless instrument, and microscopy as a trivial, time wasting pursuit. . . . [T]he microscope and its subjects had none of the redeeming features of the telescope; and squinting at mites, dust, and decaying cheese is a different matter from contemplating the moon, stars, and planets -- objects which are 'high' rather than 'low', powerful and mysterious rather than small, dirty, and troublesome. (Wilson, 1988: 101; see also Turner, 1974: 3, 6)

These reasons, combined with the technical limitations of early microscopes (relatively weak and blurry lenses, poor specimen preparation, inadequate lighting, etc.), led many early modern philosophers and scientists to conceive of microscopes as mere 'playthings' instead of genuine scientific instruments (Wilson, 1988: 86; Turner, 1974: 3, 5).

This cynicism toward the microscope persisted until the late-nineteenth century. It may in part help to explain why microphotography was initially taken up with more enthusiasm in the realm of bric-à-brac rather than the more 'serious' domain of science, or perhaps why its application to book technologies was not pursued in earnest until the end of the nineteenth century. Microphotographs became popular curiosities in Britain and France in the mid-nineteenth century, when manufacturers of novelty items began concealing the tiny photos in an assortment of everyday articles. Like the miniature book technologies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, minute photographs found secret homes in objects like pocket watch keys, letter openers, opera glasses, and rings. The 'microscope-bijoux', as they were called, were typically outfitted with a small magnifying glass which allowed people to peer at the tiny photos whenever and wherever the mood struck them (Luther, 1959: 33). These microscope-bijoux often contained microphotographic images; a palliative landscape photo or a picture of one's beloved were among the most common. Yet some also contained pictures of printed text; a prayer or miniature perpetual calendar, for example, very well might dwell inside (Luther, 1959: 33-34).

Still, not all of microphotography's early applications were this whimsical; microphotographic technologies were also articulated to a far graver business in the mid-nineteenth century: namely, war (Luther, 1959: 29). One of the first recorded uses of microphotography in a military context occurred during the Franco-Prussian war, when the Prussian army laid siege to Paris from 1870-1871. Prussian soldiers, upon encircling the city, cut virtually all lines of communication, destroying telegraph cables and closing off waterways, railways, roadways, and footpaths running in and out of Paris. The siege thus posed serious problems for sending and receiving news and coordinating troop movements from the beleaguered capital. Initially the French turned to hot air balloons, although the vagaries of the prevailing winds made getting dispatches out of the city far easier than getting them in with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Later they turned to messenger dogs, but the food shortages that resulted from the siege meant that dogs had become more valuable as meals than messengers. A third, apparently successful, solution called for reviving the use of carrier pigeons, a means for transmitting messages from point-to-point that had waned since France had implemented the electrical telegraph in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Yet the 'pigeon-post' presented its own share of difficulties, since each pigeon could carry messages weighing no more than one-thirtieth of an ounce (Luther, 1959: 63-64). The birds' physiological limits ensured, in other words, that they could convey only the briefest of printed dispatches unless some method were employed to miniaturize and subsequently re-enlarge them. In 1870, microphotographic communiqués began flying into and out of Paris affixed to pigeons' tail feathers.11

France surrendered to Prussian forces in January 1871, and the pigeons were returned to their coops. Nevertheless, the siege of Paris had occasioned the first large-scale application of microphotography to printed communications, which continued thereafter. Indeed, by the final quarter of the nineteenth century, it became possible to speak of 'microphotographic books' (Goldschmidt & Otlet, 1976: 100-108). In Photography and the Chemistry of Light, a print-on-paper book published in 1880, author H. Vogel discussed recent developments in microphotography in Britain, including how:

by means of photography it is possible to concentrate, in a few square decimeters of area, the contents of large folios, and that by photographically reducing works filling entire rooms, one can have their equivalent in a single drawer. This consideration is important because of the rapid and increasing augmentation of materials accumulated in our libraries. It is true that to read the works in miniature it would be necessary to use a microscope or a magic lantern. (Goldschmidt & Otlet, 1976: 102)

Similarly, in 1896, Electrical World reported: '[I]t is well within the bounds of possibility that the scientific student of the future will do his book work with the aid of a small projection lantern and a library of small positives' (Fessenden, 1976: 99). And in 1906, French researchers discussed the 'luminous projection' of microphotographic books via electric lamps (Goldschmidt & Otlet, 1976: 104), which may have been among the first (to impose an anachronism) 'electrical books'.

These reports are significant for three reasons. First, they indicate how the idea of microphotographic books had become practicable by the late-nineteenth century. Second, they suggest how microphotographic books were positioned discursively with respect to the perceived overcrowding of print-on-paper books in libraries. Microphotographic books, like the miniature books of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, arguably were conceived of and implemented in part to resist the proliferation of print-on-paper books. Finally, the reports reference two types of technology for enlarging and viewing microphotographic books: the microscope, which had been the principal device used for enlarging microphotographs since about 1840; and 'luminous projection' devices (e.g. the magic lantern), which appear to have been articulated to microphotography and microphotographic books closer to the end of the nineteenth century.

In October 1906, the International Congress of Photographic Documentation passed a resolution calling for increased research 'to find a practical process for the establishment and the reading of documents (more for text than for pictures) following the methods of microphotography and cinematography' (Goldschmidt & Otlet, 1976: 106). The connection the organization drew between microphotography and 'cinematography' (i.e. motion pictures) was not coincidental, but instead underscored the close association the two shared in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Technologically, a key point of connection was the magic lantern.

The magic lantern consists of a lamplight enclosed in an opaque housing, except for a small aperture (sometimes affixed with a lens) through which a beam of light can pass. In a sufficiently darkened room, one can project and enlarge the image of a small translucent object by placing it in front of the hole. The magic lantern had been in use since the late-seventeenth century, and interest in the technology intensified especially in the nineteenth century. Together with the discovery of the persistence of vision and the emergence of both photography and celluloid film, the magic lantern formed a key part of the technological development of Edison's kinetoscope, which debuted publicly in 1892, and the Lumière's motion picture projector, the cinématographe, which made its debut four years later. The articulation of microphotography and motion pictures, I contend, was integral in terms of shifting the preferred method of enlarging microphotographic books from microscopes to luminous projection. The shift began to occur, moreover, just as the microscope was transforming from a primarily recreational to a primarily scientific instrument.12

In March 1938, Harper's magazine published a piece entitled 'Catching Up With the Inventors', in which the author, Arthur Train, Jr., speculated on the U.S.'s technological future fifty years on. Like most futurists, Train made several predictions that, in retrospect, smacked of failed science fiction (e.g. personal fleets of 'steep-flight airplanes' that would launch from the roof of one's home). Yet he was, in other respects, remarkably prescient. Besides correctly predicting the coming of cable television, automatic garage door openers, and home security systems, Train also foresaw'[t]he day . . . when each individual would have his own wave-length and by means of pocket radio could communicate with anybody anywhere' (1938: 370) (i.e. something like cellular telephony). Train also speculated on the future of book technologies with somewhat mixed results:

Outside of a few first editions and beautifully bound volumes with handsome illustrations, Mr. Doe's library contained few books. It consisted chiefly of little drawers filled with thousands of tiny reels of film a few millimeters in width. On his table was a reading machine about the size of a portable typewriter, which projected the tiny photographed pages onto a small screen. Each of these tiny films also carried a sound track, and at his own discretion he could play them on a talking book. (1938: 370)

Interestingly, by 1938, the microscope had become totally absent from the 'future' of book technologies. Instead, Train believed that people would view microphotographic books at home solely with the aid of luminous projection technologies -- in this case, a personalized viewing station similar to microfilm viewers introduced in the late-nineteenth century (the ability to play a soundtrack notwithstanding).

It is worth pointing out that Train was writing on the cusp of television, when its social uses and viewing contexts were still relatively undefined. By the mid-twentieth century, however, television would begin affecting how people conceived of and talked about microphotographic book technologies. In 1949, George R. Stewart, an English professor at the University of California, Berkeley, ruminated on how one might bring what he termed 'visual literature' into living rooms:

You can lean back relaxed in an easy chair with your head comfortable against a cushion. Your hands can be anywhere you want them to be, except that one of them should be available now and then to adjust a remote-control lever. If you have reached the time of being farsighted, you do not even need to wear your glasses. You set the lever, and words appear in large size or whatever size you wish, against a light-colored space of wall, perhaps above your mantelpiece. A hundred words may appear at once, arranged in conventional lines. When you have read to the bottom, you press a button, and a new set of lines appears. One hand is free to manipulate a cigarette or a tall glass. Or you can doubtless hit the button with your elbow or your foot, and in that case you can get on with your knitting. (1976: 464)

The mantelpiece imagery is significant, I believe, given its consistency with popular descriptions that followed in the early-1950s heralding television as 'the new family hearth' (Spigel, 1992: 38). At mid-century, commentators framed microphotographic books and television within a common conceptual horizon. And in contrast to Train's vision from a decade earlier, Stewart anticipated a future in which people conceivably could read microphotographic books privately and/or in groups -- an image more in harmony with the emerging 'scene' of domestic television viewing.

Still, Professor Stewart's 'visual literature' remained 'cinematic' in some respects, since it relied on photographically, rather than electronically, miniaturized and transmitted book content. Among the first televisual electronic book systems was the Verac, which was designed and built in the early-1960s by AVCO Corporation, which, interestingly, also designed guidance systems for nuclear missiles (Baker, 2001: 29, 278n). The Verac was meant to aid in the storage and retrieval of print-on-paper books and other printed materials, particularly in research libraries where there was a perceived shortage of storage space and a fear about deteriorating paper. As critic Nicholson Baker has recently argued, the Verac also grew out of the 'cold War mania for micro-preservation', which flowed from the U.S. government's extensive use of microfilm during World War II (2001: 30). Baker has described the Verac as:

a cubic-foot set of stacked photographic plates layered with super-high-resolution 'Lippman emulsion', which could hold a million page-images, each accessed by a servomechanism that . . . 'brings the addressed image into the scanning position through paroxysmic effort of approximately one-tenth of a second's duration'. The Verac could make you a hard copy . . . with the help of a Printapix tube, or the image could be made to appear on a 'vidicon', or closed-circuit-TV screen. (2001: 29)13

Each Verac, in other words, would have been capable of electronically storing and retrieving somewhere in the neighborhood of 3,000 and 5,000 print-on-paper books in a unit measuring only a foot wide. Despite repeated tests and modifications, however, the Verac never made it beyond the prototype stage. At best it could produce only blurry text and images, which were considered by many to be inferior to those that could be produced microphotographically.

Despite the Verac's apparent shortcomings, televisual electronic book systems continued to be developed and tested in the U.S. -- but never widely implemented -- in the decades that followed. In contrast to the Verac, which was intended mainly for use in research libraries, the two main TV-based electronic book systems to have emerged in the late-1970s/early-1980s were designed around domestic television. Admittedly, these were more than electronic book systems; they were touted as 'information retrieval services' ('News and More', 1980: 106), providing up-to-date national and local news, weather, community information, and other services alongside the ability to access electronic books. The first such system, teletext, transmitted text-based information (i.e. no graphics) from a central mainframe computer via off-air television frequencies. In 1982, Newsweek described teletext as:

a one-way conduit for information. Computer-coded messages are sent to the home in the 'vertical blanking interval' -- the slim black band above a standard-broadcast TV image -- and a decoder converts the signal into a 'page' of information filling the screen. Viewers flip the pages by punching buttons on a handheld control box or a computer keyboard (Marbach, 1982: 55).

Earlier that year, Time, Inc. had begun trials of its teletext service in 400 test households in San Diego, California and Orlando, Florida. As part of the experiment, its subsidiary, Time-Life Books, developed teletext editions of cookbooks and other titles from its most popular print-on-paper book series, which viewers could access from a central mainframe via their television sets. Besides Time, Inc., seven other companies conducted similar tests on teletext systems around the U.S. in the early 1980s. Depending upon the specific service to which viewers subscribed, they could access as many as 5,000 teletext pages (Dahlin, 1982: 28).

Publishers Weekly, the book industry's principal trade publication, meanwhile, heralded cable television as the 'bright hope of electronic publishing' (Dahlin, 1982: 31). The magazine made this claim specifically in reference to videotex, a predominantly cable television-based information service.14 Like teletext, videotex provided users with access to electronic versions of books, magazines, news headlines, and other information from a mainframe computer via one's television set, a 'page'/screen at a time. In contrast to teletext's unidirectional, off-air setup, however, videotex's cable TV hookup enabled information to flow bi-directionally. Thus, in addition to accessing electronic books, videotex users could access a variety of fee-based 'interactive' services that were largely unavailable on teletext systems, including shopping, polling, banking, bill paying, sending and receiving electronic mail and greeting cards, and contributing messages to electronic bulletin boards (Marbach, 1982: 55; Harris, 1985: 128). Cable television's higher bandwidth, moreover, enabled videotex systems to transmit not only text but graphics -- in color.

In 1981, CBS and AT&T formed one of the earliest videotex partnerships, Venture One, and within a year trials were underway in 200 households in Ridgewood, New Jersey. Electronic books figured prominently in Venture One's plans for videotex. 'CBS publications', Harry Smith, Venture One's director indicated in 1982, 'both books and magazines, will be generously represented in our information product' (cited in Dahlin, 1982: 29).15 Yet the company also underscored the need to reformat print-on-paper books and other printed materials substantially before (re)presenting them on TV. 'Everything will be reedited… and adapted into the graphics of this particular medium', Smith indicated. 'The information has to be written differently: 2000 words may read beautifully in print, but put them up on the screen and they'll be a colossal bore. By and large, it's a medium that can use up to 125 words, maximum' (cited in Dahlin, 1982: 29). Electronic videotex books, in other words, were made to conform to the conventions of domestic television viewing, particularly the custom of sitting at a distance from the TV console (which precluded small text). Both teletext and videotext thus realized Professor Stewart's dream from more than three decades earlier of bringing 'visual literature' into one's living room.

In 1983, the trade journal Marketing and Media Decisions promised nothing short of an impending videotex revolution, claiming that televisual electronic books, magazines, and services would lead to '[t]he most massive social change since Gutenberg and the transition from illuminated manuscript to mass print' (cited in Lefcowitz, n.d.).16 By 1986, however, most U.S. teletext and videotex companies had discontinued operations.17 Their divestiture from these systems -- and thus the divestiture, at least for now, from TV ebooks -- has been attributed to several factors. First, few potential subscribers were willing to pay the relatively high upfront costs (between $400 and $900) for a decoder box, keyboard, and other equipment, nor were they willing to pay ongoing charges of $25 per month or more, plus fees for most services (25¢-50¢ per email, $1-$2 per electronic greeting card, etc.) (Harris, 1985: 128; Harris, 1986: 31-32). Second, videotex, and to a lesser extent, teletext, were plagued by complaints about speed and accessibility. In addition to comparatively slow data transfer rates, users were forced to scroll through long lists of news and information, unable to pass over material that did not interest them (McAdams, n.d.). Third, some feared, given videotex's bi-directional flow of information in particular, that their viewing and purchasing habits, political proclivities, and related personal information would no longer remain confidential.18 Finally, TV-based teletext and videotex systems appear to have been overshadowed by the emergence of personal computing in the 1980s. Many teletext and videotex companies, by the mid-80s, began migrating from TV to PC-based services, which users accessed via modems and telephone lines rather than decoder boxes and coaxial cable. In 1982, Newsweek asked: 'Will Americans turn off "Hill Street Blues" and abandon the evening news to read airline schedules, restaurant menus and gardening tips on their home television sets' (Marbach , 1982: 55)? By the late-1980s, the answer, chiefly, was no.

Around the same time, the book industry trade press began associating electronic books with PCs, computer software, and, later, laptop computers. As early as 1984, Publishers Weekly used the term 'electronic books' to describe PC-based 'interactive fiction games', otherwise known as text adventures, which were stored on 5¼ -inch floppy disks ('Preiss Video', 1984: 41). A sidebar piece accompanying a 1992 Publishers Weekly article entitled 'Roll Over, Gutenberg' defined an 'electronic book' as '[a]ny book that can be read on a computer or handheld personal information product' ('What Is an Electronic Book', 1992: 51). This rather circular definition notably lacked any reference to television, almost as though televisual electronic books had never existed. That same year, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of its Modern Library series, Random House re-issued ten of its most popular series titles in both printed and electronic format. The electronic editions, called 'expanded books' by the publisher, were stored on 3½-inch diskettes for use on Apple laptop computers (Feldman, 1992: 10; Elmer-Dewitt, 1992: 69). Expanded books began to be issued around the same time as encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, legal guides, and other reference materials started to be released widely on CD-ROM. Sony, meanwhile, introduced two battery-powered ebook readers, the Data Discman and the Bookman, in the early 1990s. Both devices resembled small laptop computers, and allowed users to access digital text and graphics stored on 3½-inch mini-disks and 4½-inch CD-ROMs respectively. Each type of disk had the capacity to store up to about 100,000 pages of information (Slotwick, 1991: 12; Steiner, 1992: 24; Rawlinson, 1992: 50; Langstaff, 1993: 43). Sony tried, unsuccessfully, to trademark the term 'electronic book' in 1991 ('Small Firm Challenges Sony', 1991: 12).

Although ebook technologies of the late-1990s and early-twenty-first century vary widely with respect to their capabilities, one consistent feature which is often spotlighted in advertising, news reports, and critical commentary is their ability to provide access to comparatively more information than a single print-on-paper book effectively can hold.19 Publicity materials announcing the 1999 release of NuvoMedia's Rocket eBook, for example, highlight its ability to store 'some 4,000 pages -- about ten of your favorite novels' in a handheld device weighing 22 ounces. Informational materials released later that year stress how, by purchasing a memory upgrade, the Rocket eBook can store'up to the equivalent of 90 novels, or 36,000 average paperback pages' in a device that 'goes anywhere'. Similarly, an advertisement in the February 2000 issue of Brill's Content for Reader, Microsoft's ebook software for laptop PCs and handheld personal digital assistants, predicts that ebook technologies will be able to'hold as many as a million titles' by the year 2010 in devices about the same size as, and in some cases smaller than, many print-on-paper books. As Wired magazine observed recently, ebook manufacturers dream of creating a 'kind of metabook -- a book that could serve as a container for other books' (Silberman, 1998).

Conclusion: Towards a Theory of Intermediation

It seems clear that ebooks possess a far deeper, far richer history than is suggested by the creation myths with which I began this essay. Indeed, the history of ebooks arguably refers back to before the emergence of printing in the West, rather than simply to a lone engineer tinkering in the garage with spare parts. It intersects not only with print-on-paper books, but also with a host of technologies and apparatuses ranging from the 'everyday' (e.g. television and cinema) to the more 'specialized' (e.g. microfilm and microscopes) to the 'banal' (e.g. magnifying glasses) and to the 'macabre' (e.g. dead animal eyeballs).20 I do not mean to imply, however, that the technologies I have discussed prior to, say, the 1980s or 1990s merely were proto-ebooks. Rather, I believe that ebook technologies are, at some level, implicated in and conditioned by discourses and technologies of miniaturization, and that these discourse and technologies provide a key point of connection joining the disparate aspects of my history. Ebook technologies, that is to say rearticulate a desire to miniaturize book technologies that is at least five centuries old.

The genealogy I have assembled suggests, furthermore, that critical historians would do well to sidestep questions of origin, and indeed authenticity or mimesis, in favor of the messier work of engaging with media and technologies in their specificity. Rather than assuming that ebooks maintain a necessary ontological connection with print-on-paper books, for example, I have mapped some of the contingent historical and social processes through which that relationship has been produced and transformed over time. Thus, I have explored how handicraft and industrial production, modern science, militarism and war, and technologies of miniaturization all have conditioned the dynamic articulation of a range of book technologies. Doing so has enabled me to avoid launching yet another salvo in the hackneyed 'who invented ebooks?' and 'do ebooks diminish the experience of printed books?' debates, and to show instead how e/book history cuts across multiple domains of media history and practice. These relationships show us how e/book history is embedded in, not eclipsed by, the history of other media and technologies of communication.

Another, more theoretically-inflected way of making this point would be to say that the history of book and ebook technologies is framed by a problematic of'intermediation'. By'intermediation' I do not mean 'remediation', or Jay David Bolter's theory concerning how 'new media' may be said to borrow and adapt from the visual styles of 'older media' (2000; see also Bolter & Grusin, 1999). Moreover, by intermediation I do not mean 'intermedia', a term coined by Fluxus artist Dick Higgins to describe artistic 'works which conceptually fall between media that are already known' (1984: 23). While provocative, both 'remediation' and 'intermedia' reduce the relationships among media to matters of aesthetics and form.

In a more positive vein, 'intermediation' denotes the contextually defined sets of discursive relationships among media and communication technologies as they arise in determinant historical conjunctures. 'Intermedial relationships' thus refer to the contextually/historically specific ways in which media and communication technologies articulate and are articulated by one another discursively. The theory of intermediation I want to sketch is grounded in two primary assumptions: first, there are only contingent (i.e. historically produced) associations between media rather than ontologically necessary ones; and second, media and communication technologies should not be isolated analytically from one another. Methodologically, the concept of intermediation shifts the historian's focus from a single medium or communication technology to an expanded field of discursive relationships among a plurality of media and communication technologies.21

Historians of communication have long recognized and commented on intermedial relationships, although within the limits of my research they do not appear ever to have named them. Television historians, for example, have dwelled at length on how broadcast television's licensing, programming, and advertising structure, not to mention its social contexts of use, very early on were inflected by and adapted from those of radio (Barnouw, 1990; Spigel, 1992). More recent work in television history has explored how the social uses, viewing contexts, and technical apparatus of large-screen video displays (e.g. the Sony JumboTron) intersect with those of the telescope, electric sign, and theater television, among other technologies (Siegel, 2000). The concept of intermediation underscores the need to continue chronicling and theorizing these kinds of connections. Beyond that, it should enjoin historians to heighten their sensitivities to the relationships among media/communication technologies that may be less immediately obvious or that remain undocumented in more conventional historical accounts.

This essay has suggested, moreover, the beginnings of a typology of possible intermedial relationships: formal (e.g. how interactive cable TV ebooks were organized into 'pages' both similar to and different from print-on-paper books); functional (e.g. how a technology performs the work of other media but in a new form, as in the relationship of print-on-paper books and ebooks); augmentative (e.g. how optical lenses are used to enlarge the size of text thus making it more functional); and/or instrumental (e.g. how television and the internet assist in the marketing, distribution, and sale of print-on-paper books). And although I have not dwelled on this particular modality, it seems clear that intermedial relationships also can be adaptive (e.g. how the 'content' of print-on-paper books can provide the raw material for programming in another medium, and vice-versa). (The relationship of TV and radio that I mentioned earlier suggests additional possible types of intermedial relationships, viz., organizational and social-contextual, given how the television industry and the contexts of television's uses were adapted from those of radio.)

Obviously, further research will have to be carried out to identify and classify additional types of intermedial relationships. Only by mapping these relationships will there begin to emerge an empirically richer and more theoretically compelling picture of the complex ways in which e/book history cuts across multiple domains of media history and practice.


1 Silberman (1998).

2 One brief note about terminology: there appears to be a lack of consensus among industry representatives, the press, and critical scholars about precisely how to spell the truncated form of 'electronic book'. I prefer 'ebook' and employ the term throughout this study. I have preserved alternative spellings (e.g., eBook, e-book, E-Book, and so forth), however, in those cases in which the term refers to a specific trade name, product, or industry standard, or where authors to whom I refer use a spelling different from my own.

3 I should add that while this genealogy does explore some of the social and economic dimensions of the history of ebook technologies, it nevertheless is focused primarily on the technical or technological dimensions of this history. For a longer, more multidimensional treatment of the history of ebook technologies, see Striphas (2002).

4 'At present there is a tendency to think of a steady increase in book production during the first century of printing. An evolutionary model of change is applied to a situation that seems to call for a revolutionary one' (Eisenstein, 1979: 45; see also 3-42). Other accounts that speak either directly or indirectly to a printing 'revolution' include McLuhan (1962) and Ong (1982); c.f. Febvre and Martin, 1976: 9.

5 Ironically, Eisenstein asserts earlier on in the book that '[t]here is no "typical" bookdealer, scribe, or even manuscript', and thus historians ought to be leery of making generalizations on the basis of an apparent typicality (1979: 12). Recently, Adrian Johns has observed how '[i]ncidents that have been retrospectively dismissed as isolated and exceptional [by historians of printing] often seemed to [contemporaries] commonplace and representative' (1998: 32).

6 'The disconnected air exhibited by Eisenstein's account is not accidental. In her work, printing itself stands outside history. The press is something "sui generis", we are told, lying beyond the reach of conventional historical analysis' (Johns, 1998: 19).

7 The term 'piracy' is, admittedly, something of an anachronism, since copyright and other such provisions did not exist in the earliest days of print.

8 'The first book reputed to have been printed without any errors appeared only in 1760' (Johns, 1998: 31). This is not to suggest that manuscripts were free from corruption.

9 Photography, from the Greek roots, photo and graphos, literally means 'written with light'.

10 Microphotography is roughly the opposite of photomicrography, both of which were introduced around 1839. Microphotography involves the production of microscopic photographic images of macroscopic objects, whereas photomicrography involves the production of macroscopic photographic images of microscopic objects (Turner, 1974: 8-9).

11 'The reduction ratio was so great . . . that every film produced bore three to four thousand messages of twenty words each. The films weighed but one twentieth of a gram each; so light and compact were they that a pigeon . . . [could] actually carry twenty-one such films, or a total of between sixty and eighty thousand messages' (Luther, 1959: 77).

12 On the shifting social uses of the microscope in the late-nineteenth century, see Turner (1974: 6).

13 Quotations included in this passage are from Verner Clapp, perhaps the major proponent of micro-storage in the U.S. postwar period.

14 Some videotex systems utilized telephone rather than cable television lines for data transmission, but the signals were still decoded and displayed on television sets.

15 Besides its television holdings, CBS also owned the publishing houses Holt, Rinehart, and Winston and W.B. Saunders in the early 1980s. Along with CBS and AT&T, two newspaper companies, the Miami-based Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc. and the Los Angeles-based Times-Mirror Co., were among those most heavily invested in videotext in the 1980s. With newspaper readership stagnating in the early 1980s, these companies looked to videotex as a way to increase revenue by reducing, and perhaps one day eliminating, costly newsprint and printing.

16 Time-Life, in fact, pulled the plug on their operations after only one year. See McAdams (n. d.).

17 By comparison, France 's state-run videotex system, Minitel, still operates.

18 On the privacy related concerns over Qube, a Columbus, Ohio based videotex service that suspended operations, ironically, in 1984, see Barnouw (1990: 497-500).

19 There is no limit, theoretically, to the amount of words and images a modern printed book can contain; font and image sizes can be reduced, margins can be eliminated, the physical dimensions of the book can be enlarged, and pages can be added to a given volume ad infinitum. An entire library conceivably could be housed in a single print-on-paper. Practically, however, measures such as these can result in a volume that is at best unwieldy in terms of weight and size and at worst unreadable with the naked eye.

20 I place the terms 'everyday', 'specialized', 'banal', and 'macabre' in quotation marks to mark my own anachronistic usage of these terms. I realize, for example, that in the fourteenth century a magnifying glass very well might seem extraordinary to those fortunate enough to possess one.

21 I want to emphasize strongly that in foregroundingthe technological, I do not mean to imply that it necessarily is the only, let alone the most important, line of determination with respect to the artifacts we call 'books' or 'ebooks'. The technological is only one line of determination among many (see n. 3, above). With that said, a healthy skepticism toward technological determinism should not preclude our theorizing as rigorously as possible the nature of technological determinations.


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