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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.

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