Pre 1920's

Although treated as a novelty until the 1920's, microforms originated much earlier. John Benjamin Dancer, an English scientist, known as the "Father of Microphotography," began to experiment with and manufacture microproduced novelty texts as early as 1839. In 1853 he successfully sold microphotographs as slides to be viewed with a microscope. Utilizing Dancer's techniques, a French optician, Rene Dagron, was granted the first patent for microfilm in 1859. He also began the first commercial microfilming enterprise, manufacturing and selling microphotographic trinkets. Dagron, in the fall and winter of 1870-71, during the Franco-Prussian War, demonstrated a practical use for microforms when carrier pigeons were used to transport microfilmed messages across German lines to the besieged city of Paris.


The first practical use of commercial microfilm was developed by a New York City banker, George McCarthy, in the 1920's. He was issued a patent in 1925 for his Checkograph machine, designed to make permanent film copies of all bank records. In 1928 Eastman Kodak bought McCarthy's invention and began to market it under Kodak's Recordak Division.


With a perfected 35mm microfilm camera, Recordak in 1935 expanded and began filming and publishing the New York Times in microfilm. Two significant events in 1938 hastened the use of microforms for archival preservation in American libraries and institutions. Because of rapid deterioration of the newsprint original and the numerous difficulties in storage and use of newspapers, Harvard University Library began its Foreign Newspaper Project. Today this project continues and the microform masters are stored at the Center for Research Studies in Chicago. This same year also saw the founding of University Microfilms, Inc. ('UMI') by Eugene Power. He had previously microfilmed foreign and rare books, but in 1938 his work became a commercial enterprise as he expanded into microfilming doctoral dissertations.


During World War II microphotography was used extensively for espionage and for regular military mail. Letters going overseas were sent on microfilm, with a V-mail or "hardcopy" being produced and forwarded at the receiving side. The war also brought a threat of destruction to the records of civilization. This threat added the urgency for the microfilming of records, documents, archives and collections. During the closing war years and immediate post-war years, there was a flurry of microfilming by occupying nations.

1950's and 1960's

After the war, the idea of using microforms for active information systems and just for preservation of material was proposed. It was envisioned that libraries utilize microforms as active information sources as well as use for storage mediums. Increased funding and improved technology in the late 50's and 60's encouraged academic libraries and research libraries to continue to expand their activities in the area of microforms.


In the 1970's the information explosion forced libraries and institutions and their users to microforms as an alternative to bulky expensive print materials. Improved film, readers, viewers, reader-printers, and the advent of portable lap readers made this money-saving choice more acceptable.

1980's and 1990's

The improved technology of the 1970's also increased computer output microform applications. Microforms produced directly from a computer are being used to produce parts catalogs, hospital and insurance records, telephone listings, college catalogs, patent records, publisher's catalogs and library catalogs. Although this technique is widely used, the permanence of microfilm masters on film is the standard for most libraries and those applications where preservation is an issue. Microforms will have a future not only in the short term but probably in the more distant future as well.