DescriptionScaled-down reproductions on film strip
Time Period1892
DetailsThe Times newspaper, November-December
1892, in storage box
DimensionsBox: 9.5 x 9.5 x 4 cm
Roll: 4 x 9.5 cm
LocationUCL Cabinet of Obsolete Media
Inventory nºUCL201738

Microfilm is part of the family of microform, in which reproductions of images and documents are scaled down for transportation, reading, and storage. Microfilm refers to medium in the form of film reels.

The English scientist John Benjamin Dancer invented microfilm in 1839, experimenting with the then-new technology of the daguerreotype to produce scaled-down images. However, it was not until 1959 that René Dagron patented microfilm technology and standardized the production process. He gave the technology its first practical use during the Franco-Prussian War, when carrier pigeons transported secret messages into Paris on microfilm strapped to their legs.

The first commercial use of microfilm did not come until the 1920s in New York, where banker George McCarthy obtained a patent for his Checkograph machine that created permanent copies on film of bank records. Following the success of this technology, Eastman Kodak bought the machine in 1928, renaming it the Recordak. In the 1930s libraries and other institutions began to embrace microfilm for archival and preservation purposes. With issues of deterioration and the large storage facilities needed to house and use old newspapers, The New York Times began transferring their publications to film from 1935. Libraries such as the Harvard University Library quickly followed suit. The World Wars sparked a flurry of microfilming to create back-ups of records in the face of the threat of the destruction of original documents. Microfilm was also used to transfer information in espionage missions during both World Wars as well as the Cold War.

The appeal of lesser storage needs and easy access meant that microfilm continued to rise in popularity, with libraries expanding their stock and purchasing new and improved technologies. The information boom that occurred in the 1970s helped microfilm establish itself as an ideal alternative to bulky and pricey printed materials. The introduction of new copyright law coupled with cheaper, more durable film types promised a strong future for the technology even into the computer age, with the development of computer-generated microfilms used extensively in the legal and medical fields.

While digital files have indeed taken over many of the roles that microfilm once held, there is a valid argument that microform technology can in fact be a more stable preservation format, given that the optimal material is used and proper care and storage techniques are implemented. Early examples of microfilm used cellulose nitrate, a highly flammable and unstable material unsuited to preservation. Cellulose acetate film was subsequently developed, of which the microfilm included in UCL’s Cabinet of Obsolete Technology is an example. Cellulose acetate film, while less flammable than cellulose nitrate, is still subject to degradation, giving off a vinegary smell as the acetic acid releases gas. Polyester film became the standard in the 1970s, which can last for over 500 years if properly cared for.