Menus Subscribe Search
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

September 1 • 1:00 PM

Television and Overeating: What We Watch Matters

New research finds fast-moving programming leads to mindless overeating.



September 1 • 6:00 AM

Why Someone Named Monty Iceman Sold Doogie Howser’s Estate

How unusual names, under certain circumstances, can lead to success.



August 29 • 4:00 PM

The Hidden Costs of Tobacco Debt

Even when taxpayers aren’t explicitly on the hook, tobacco bonds can cost states and local governments money. Here’s how.


August 29 • 2:00 PM

Why Don’t Men and Women Wear the Same Gender-Neutral Bathing Suits?

They used to in the 1920s.


August 29 • 11:48 AM

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.


August 29 • 10:00 AM

True Darwinism Is All About Chance

Though the rich sometimes forget, Darwin knew that nature frequently rolls the dice.


August 29 • 8:00 AM

Why Our Molecular Make-Up Can’t Explain Who We Are

Our genes only tell a portion of the story.


August 29 • 6:00 AM

Strange Situations: Attachment Theory and Sexual Assault on College Campuses

When college women leave home, does attachment behavior make them more vulnerable to campus rape?


August 29 • 4:00 AM

Forgive Your Philandering Partner—and Pay the Price

New research finds people who forgive an unfaithful romantic partner are considered weaker and less competent than those who ended the relationship.


August 28 • 4:00 PM

Some Natural-Looking Zoo Exhibits May Be Even Worse Than the Old Concrete Ones

They’re often designed for you, the paying visitor, and not the animals who have to inhabit them.


August 28 • 2:00 PM

What I Learned From Debating Science With Trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls” is sound advice, but occasionally ignoring it can lead to rewards.


August 28 • 12:00 PM

The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Meme Money

The ALS Association has raised nearly $100 million over the past month, 50 times what it raised in the same period last year. How will that money be spent, and how can non-profit executives make a windfall last?


August 28 • 11:56 AM

Outlawing Water Conflict: California Legislators Confront Risky Groundwater Loophole

California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only Western state without groundwater regulation—but now that looks set to change.


August 28 • 11:38 AM

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.


August 28 • 10:00 AM

The Five Words You Never Want to Hear From Your Doctor

“Sometimes people just get pains.”


August 28 • 8:00 AM

Why I’m Not Sharing My Coke

Andy Warhol, algorithms, and a bunch of popular names printed on soda cans.


August 28 • 6:00 AM

Can Outdoor Art Revitalize Outdoor Advertising?

That art you’ve been seeing at bus stations and billboards—it’s serving a purpose beyond just promoting local museums.


August 28 • 4:00 AM

Linguistic Analysis Reveals Research Fraud

An examination of papers by the discredited Diederik Stapel finds linguistic differences between his legitimate and fraudulent studies.


August 28 • 2:00 AM

Poverty and Geography: The Myth of Racial Segregation

Migration, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality (not to mention class), can be a poverty-buster.


August 27 • 4:00 PM

The ‘Non-Lethal’ Flash-Bang Grenades Used in Ferguson Can Actually Be Quite Lethal

A journalist says he was singed by a flash-bang fired by St. Louis County police trying to disperse a crowd, raising questions about how to use these military-style devices safely and appropriately.


August 27 • 2:00 PM

Do Better Looking People Have Better Personalities Too?

An experiment on users of the dating site OKCupid found that members judge both looks and personality by looks alone.


August 27 • 12:00 PM

Love Can Make You Stronger

A new study links oxytocin, the hormone most commonly associated with social bonding, and the one that your body produces during an orgasm, with muscle regeneration.


August 27 • 11:05 AM

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”


Follow us


Subscribe Now

Your Brain Decides Whether to Trust Someone in Milliseconds

We can determine trustworthiness even when we’re only subliminally aware of the other person.

Young, Undocumented, and Invisible

While young migrant workers struggle under poor working conditions, U.S. policy has done little to help.

Education, Interrupted

When it comes to educational access, young Syrian refugees are becoming a “lost generation.”

No, Smartphone-Loss Anxiety Disorder Isn’t Real

But people are anxious about losing their phones, even if they don’t do much to protect them.

Being a Couch Potato: Not So Bad After All?

For those who feel guilty about watching TV, a new study provides redemption.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one

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