Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


fake-robot-librarian

(PHOTO: FLAVORWIRE)

Were There Robot Librarians in the 1950s?

• May 02, 2013 • 10:00 AM

(PHOTO: FLAVORWIRE)

No, there were not. Here’s how we know.

In 1911, Popular Mechanics published some illustrations of things like Joan of Arc at a sewing table, a Civil War soldier being examined by an X-ray machine, and George Washington getting his photograph taken. Titled “Anachronisms of the Future,” these pictures were meant to be humorous examples of things that people of the future—like those crazy kids of 2013—might believe had actually happened.

On Monday a Twitter pal of mine sent me a link to “Librarian 2.0“—a photo that appears to show a book lending machine or library directory from the 1950s.

But a few things about the photo struck me as odd. First of all, “2.0” didn’t really enter the lexicon as a shorthand for “next generation technology” until the late 1990s, so it seemed unlikely that, whatever this was, they had intended for “2.0” to mean “next-gen librarian.” But I set that concern aside and began thinking about how this machine would have worked and what function it might serve in the 1950s.

2.0 didn’t enter the lexicon as a shorthand for “next generation technology” until the late 1990s.

Did you push a button for your book to appear below? How useful was a book vending machine with only eight or so different titles? And how, in the 1950s, did you automate checking out a book without something like barcode technology?

These days, I use the self-checkout machines at the Los Angeles Central Library by scanning the barcode on the back of my library card. Then I scan the barcodes inside each book I want to check out, waving the book over a device that makes sure the security system doesn’t beep when I exit the library. But how would a self-checkout robot like the one supposedly pictured above have worked at mid-century?

I noticed the odd pixelation on the letters for “Librarian 2.0″ and decided that a reverse image search would be in order. And sure enough, it turns out that my skepticism was warranted. The “robot” vending machine is actually a cigarette machine from the Berlin Zoo in 1955.

Now, Getty’s description of the image probably leaves more questions than answers: “The machine thanks customers on payment for the cigarettes, and at the same time gives road safety advice. Road accident scenes are projected in the robot’s eyes.” But at least we know it’s a Photoshop job that made the image look like it belongs in a library.

Who knows how many doctored ahistorical images we see online on any given day? Thanks to tools like Photoshop and the copy-machine that is the Internet, creating anachronistic images is easier than ever. But amazing tools like reverse image search are leveling the playing field for history sleuths everywhere. Does a word look out of place—and out of time? Not sure if that image is real? Just plug in the URL or upload a copy of the image and click enter. You’ll find out whether or not Abraham Lincoln actually rode that dinosaur in no time.

Matt Novak
Matt Novak writes about past visions of the future for BBC.com and Smithsonian.com.

More From Matt Novak

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

December 20 • 10:28 AM

Flare-Ups

Are my emotions making me ill?


December 19 • 4:00 PM

How a Drug Policy Reform Organization Thinks of the Children

This valuable, newly updated resource for parents is based in the real world.


December 19 • 2:00 PM

Where Did the Ouija Board Come From?

It wasn’t just a toy.


December 19 • 12:00 PM

Social Scientists Can Do More to Eradicate Racial Oppression

Using our knowledge of social systems, all social scientists—black or white, race scholar or not—have an opportunity to challenge white privilege.


December 19 • 10:17 AM

How Scientists Contribute to Bad Science Reporting

By not taking university press officers and research press releases seriously, scientists are often complicit in the media falsehoods they so often deride.


December 19 • 10:00 AM

Pentecostalism in West Africa: A Boon or Barrier to Disease?

How has Ghana stayed Ebola-free despite being at high risk for infection? A look at their American-style Pentecostalism, a religion that threatens to do more harm than good.


December 19 • 8:00 AM

Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.


December 19 • 6:12 AM

All That ‘Call of Duty’ With Your Friends Has Not Made You a More Violent Person

But all that solo Call of Duty has.


December 19 • 4:00 AM

Food for Thought: WIC Works

New research finds participation in the federal WIC program, which subsidizes healthy foods for young children, is linked with stronger cognitive development and higher test scores.


December 18 • 4:00 PM

How I Navigated Life as a Newly Sober Mom

Saying “no” to my kids was harder than saying “no” to alcohol. But for their sake and mine, I had to learn to put myself first sometimes.


December 18 • 2:00 PM

Women in Apocalyptic Fiction Shaving Their Armpits

Because our interest in realism apparently only goes so far.


December 18 • 12:00 PM

The Paradox of Choice, 10 Years Later

Paul Hiebert talks to psychologist Barry Schwartz about how modern trends—social media, FOMO, customer review sites—fit in with arguments he made a decade ago in his highly influential book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.


December 18 • 10:00 AM

What It’s Like to Spend a Few Hours in the Church of Scientology

Wrestling with thetans, attempting to unlock a memory bank, and a personality test seemingly aimed at people with depression. This is Scientology’s “dissemination drill” for potential new members.


December 18 • 8:00 AM

Gendering #BlackLivesMatter: A Feminist Perspective

Black men are stereotyped as violent, while black women are rendered invisible. Here’s why the gendering of black lives matters.


December 18 • 7:06 AM

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.


December 18 • 6:00 AM

The Very Weak and Complicated Links Between Mental Illness and Gun Violence

Vanderbilt University’s Jonathan Metzl and Kenneth MacLeish address our anxieties and correct our assumptions.


December 18 • 4:00 AM

Should Movies Be Rated RD for Reckless Driving?

A new study finds a link between watching films featuring reckless driving and engaging in similar behavior years later.


December 17 • 4:00 PM

How to Run a Drug Dealing Network in Prison

People tend not to hear about the prison drug dealing operations that succeed. Substance.com asks a veteran of the game to explain his system.


December 17 • 2:00 PM

Gender Segregation of Toys Is on the Rise

Charting the use of “toys for boys” and “toys for girls” in American English.


December 17 • 12:41 PM

Why the College Football Playoff Is Terrible But Better Than Before

The sample size is still embarrassingly small, but at least there’s less room for the availability cascade.


December 17 • 11:06 AM

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.


December 17 • 10:37 AM

A Public Lynching in Sproul Plaza

When photographs of lynching victims showed up on a hallowed site of democracy in action, a provocation was issued—but to whom, by whom, and why?


December 17 • 8:00 AM

What Was the Job?

This was the year the job broke, the year we accepted a re-interpretation of its fundamental bargain and bought in to the push to get us to all work for ourselves rather than each other.


December 17 • 6:00 AM

White Kids Will Be Kids

Even the “good” kids—bound for college, upwardly mobile—sometimes break the law. The difference? They don’t have much to fear. A professor of race and social movements reflects on her teenage years and faces some uncomfortable realities.



Follow us


Don’t Text and Drive—Especially If You’re Old

A new study shows that texting while driving becomes even more dangerous with age.

Apparently You Can Bring Your Religion to Work

New research says offices that encourage talk of religion actually make for happier workplaces.

Canadian Kids Have a Serious Smoking Problem

Bootleg cigarette sales could be leading Canadian teens to more serious drugs, a recent study finds.

The Hidden Psychology of the Home Ref

That old myth of home field bias isn’t a myth at all; it’s a statistical fact.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.