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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Avianus Manuscripts: History of the Photostat

A guide to finding and analyzing the manuscripts of Avianus as studied by Oldfather at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign..

History of the Photostat

The photostat machine was commercially released sometime after 1905, though its patent was not filed until June 1913. It entered the marketplace alongside a slew of similar technologies, such as the cameragraph and the rectigraph, which served similar purposes but had different mechanical processes. 

In the United States, the term "photostat" eventually became a generic term for any sort of photographic reproduction output, process, or machine: indeed, the original patent did not have the term "photostat" at all, referring to the invention as a "Photographic Copying Device," though it was soon marketed as "The Photostat." For its first decade of existence, use of a Photostat machine was often simply referred to as "photographing" or "photo-reproduction."

1913 advertisement for the photostat machine

A 1913 advertisement for the photostat machine, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The first library to install a photostat in the United States was the Library of Congress in 1912, and the New York Public Library followed suite in December that year. The Oxford Bodleian Library installed a similar machine, with the same mechanical process, in 1907, though they used the term "rotograph," and the British Library and the Royal Library of Brussels had photostat machines by 1910. The British Library's photostat services were soon in high demand, as American scholars requested the use of their photostat machine to copy rare medieval and early modern manuscripts.

The photostat was effective at reproducing rare documents, but while it did not require specialist labor, it was a very large machine, and its twenty-minute process time and eight seconds of exposure eventually became untenable for mass-document copying. It still enjoyed commercial use until the release of the first modern-style photocopier in 1950, and then was completely eclipsed with the release of automatic electrophotocopiers in 1959, after which the photostat had only fringe use in the copying of rare manuscripts.