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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Photostatic Facsimiles of Medieval Manuscripts: The Photostat

A guide to the Avianus, Jerome, and Mappae Clavicula manuscript facsimiles in the Literature and Library collection.

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, and was useful in office and documentary settings, but while it did not require specialist labor, it was a very large and cumbersome machine and its slow process eventually became untenable for mass-document copying. Microfilm reading machines in the 1930s and early 1940s competed for the photostat's niche in manuscript reproduction, as they fulfilled a very similar need with lower processing time and smaller storage requirements. Despite this, the photostat still enjoyed use in office settings and manuscript copying, especially in the light of the threats to European libraries posed by WWII, where the destruction of libraries and their collections suddenly increased the value of photostatted manuscripts in American institutions.

It was only with the the release of the first modern-style photocopier in 1950 that the photostat's office use seriously ebbed. Afterwards, the photostat was eclipsed by the release of automatic electrophotocopiers in 1959, and the advantages of microfilming soon made microfilms the preferred method of rare manuscript copying for most of the rest of the 20th century, finally marking the end of the photostat's wider usage.

For details on the phostat operation process, head to this page.

For an overview on Oldfather's use of the photostat, head to this page.


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