The History of Microfilm and Microfilm Readers

May 15, 2018 7:26 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Microfilm readers can be found today in just about every library and research institution across the country. But how did microfilm become so ubiquitous in the world of research?

Here is a brief history of microfilm and an overview of the effect it has had on research and document storage in our society.

The 1800s through World War II

While microfilm did not become a truly serious means of document storage until the 1920s, the technology has its origins as far back as 1839. In that year, English scientist John Benjamin Dancer began experimenting with microproduction of novelty texts and images. By 1853, he was selling microphotographs as slides that could be viewed with a microscope.

This technology was picked up by French optician Rene Dagron, who won the first patent for microfilm in 1859. It was he who began the first commercial microfilming business, mostly as a vehicle for selling microphotographic trinkets and keepsakes. But during the winter of 1870-71, Dagron began using microfilm to transport messages via carrier pigeons across German lines during the Franco-Prussian War. This opened up an entirely new world for microfilm technology.

By the 1920s, commercial microfilm had more practical uses. New York banker George McCarthy was issued a patent in 1925 for what he called a Checkograph machine, which made permanent copies on film of all bank records. The invention was bought in 1928 by Eastman Kodak, who began to market and sell it under the Recordak Division of the Kodak company.

Recordak perfected its 35mm microfilm camera in 1935, and then expanded to begin publishing the New York Times in microfilm. By 1938, American libraries and institutions began discovering the usefulness of microfilm as an archiving tool, as they realized newspaper originals rapidly deteriorated. Microfilm became the go-to archiving medium for its durability and its size, saving these institutions significant amounts of storage space.

World War II through the 1970s

World War II saw heavy use of microphotography for espionage and military mail. Many letters sent overseas were delivered on microfilm, and the recipients would then produce hard copies. With the war bringing an ever-looming threat of the destruction of civilization, there was a major boom in microfilming by nations involved in the war, with many important documents backed up on films.

When the war was over, this idea of using microfilm as a preservation tool stuck. Libraries started using microfilms as primary information sources and as storage. As funding increased through the 1950s and 1960s, academic and research libraries continued to expand their microfilm stock.

By the 1970s, microfilm was a ubiquitous alternative to bulky and expensive print materials. There were better readers, reader-printers and viewers than ever before, making the film more accessible to the general public.


The computer and digital era has led to many documents being digitized rather than stored on microfilm, but microfilm is still used extensively for the purposes of archiving documents and for viewing old, previously archived documents.

To learn more about microfilm and its history, contact Microfilm Equipment and Supplies Inc. today.

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