Hinman collator Past Technology: Lights and Mirrors
The students at the University of Virginia Rare Book School, receive, as part of a course in Advanced Descriptive Bibliography, a demonstration of the 450 pound Hinman Collator. The purpose of the machine, which was developed during the 1940s by Charlton Hinman, was to help detect typographical variations in the printing of early editions of a particular title. It is, in a way, an invention which can be used to identify a first printing from a later printing by comparing text one page at a time. The two copies are laid on the machine’s platform side by side and are superimposed via a set of mirrors causing variations in text to appear wiggling about through the machine’s pair of binocular optics.

The most famous task that the machine was used for was to compare Shakespeare’s plays, of which no manuscript survives. During the Renaissance, it was common practice during the printing process, to proofread and correct continually, leaving changes scattered throughout various copies as a trail by which bibliographic research could determine the order by which copies had been printed. Using his then state of the art technology, Hinman was able to compare 82 volumes of 900-plus pages, scrutinizing two pages at a time. A process he once estimated would have taken him 40 years, if ever completed, without the machine.

In the years following Hinman, various attempts were made to improve the technology primarily by condensing its size. The most notable improvement was the portable model developed by Randall McLeod during the late 1990s. By then, computers were leaping ahead in the technological innovation race, with the introduction of portable scanning devices that have become common practice today.

Digitization and Datafication
It has been a year since a US federal appeals court ruled that Google’s book-scanning project was in compliance with copyright laws even when volumes were scanned without the authors’ permission. The project, which now includes Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology, to convert scanned images into text, is making it easier for readers to find works, and researchers to compare and analyze. The digitization of books is combined with data indexing to provide datafication of contents and a powerful search capability against the Big Data of the written word.

The future is now: Machine intelligence
The next generation of technology is now beginning to evolve. Fast pixel-to-pixel comparison through portable devices such as a mobile phone backed by the availability of relevant statistical data, is providing the platform for killer application development. New development is already underway utilizing complex mathematical inference learning algorithms to identify and compare books through their cover imagery using a phone camera to input. Extending functionality beyond the barcode scanner, the pixels of the covers and pages are matched against the database to determine the authenticity, value and scarcity of a particular edition.

Digitally produced images such as the ones on facsimile book dust jackets are made of ink jet dots rather than the vintage offset lithographic dots. Dots relate to the droplets of ink a printer spits to produce images in detail and are measured in DPI or “Dots per Inch”. Ink jet dots are generally smaller than vintage offset lithographic dots that are produced by pressing ink directly onto paper.

All digital images are made up of tiny squares called pixels, and each pixel in an image has a specific size and a specific color value. It takes multiple drops of ink from the printer to create the color in each square pixel. Under normal circumstances, digitally produced images contain more dots per pixel than those produced through lithography. Facsimile book dust jackets consist of pixels that contain smaller dots with greater variation in color in their composition than original dust jacket pixels which are made of larger dots with more color consistency.

Engineers at Google that have worked on providing well optimized image search engine results using the information contained within images, are now developing machine intelligence applications that are using pixel patterns to infer the identity of an image. By reversing this same process, they are able to produce an image from an object’s identity. Not too long from now, bibliophiles may carry phone apps that use the phone’s camera to match book cover images to a detailed set of data, or use book attributes to generate an image of what the book could look like. Foxing and chipping still included!

machine intelligence



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Athanasius Kircher17th century German Jesuit scholar, Athanasius Kircher, published around 40 works, exploring a variety of topics, ranging from a universal language scheme, to pneumatic, hydraulic, catoptric and magnetic science. His books are lavishly illustrated, written in Latin, and were in wide circulation during the 17th century. Collectors historically have sought some of his most notable volumes on topics such as comparative religion, medicine, Egyptology, geology, and music theory.

In this, the 21st century, auction houses and dealers have sold numerous copies of “Mundus Subterraneus”, both in the original edition published in 1665, and the reprints from subsequent years. In this book, Kircher explores the theory that tides are caused by water moving to and from the subterranean ocean and concludes that the center of the earth is a massive internal fire for which the volcanoes are mere safety valves.

“Ars magna Lucis et Umbras in DecemLibros Digesta”, published in 1646, covers his work on light, shadow, and optics that lead to the production of camera obscura and magic lantern. In “Musurgia universalis”, Kircher gives an exhaustive encyclopedia of the music of the times, which remained the standard resource of music into the 18th century. “China Monumentis” and “Toonneel van China”, published in 1667 and 1668, with maps and engraved illustrations, are considered to be some of the most influential books which shaped the European conception of China in its day.

The average sale price for these books varies from a few thousand US dollars to approximately $10,000 on the high end. Since the beginning of this century, prices have remained relatively stable due to a reduction in institutional buying interest. Institutions were early buyers of Kircher’s works; a trend, that lasted through the beginning of the 1970’s.

Once in a while a scarce edition is brought to the market, generating renewed interest. A recent example is the very scarce copy of “Mundus Subterraneus”, which was auctioned just last July by Christie’s during “The Giancarlo Beltrame Library of Scientific Books, Part I” event held in London. The book without any special associations or provenance, sold for close to $200,000! It is, however, an extremely rare book being one of two of Kircher’s books recorded at auction to contain contemporary colored illustrations. The other was a copy of a Dutch edition of the “Toonneel van China”.

Multi-color printing in the middle of the 17th century was not easy to do. Multi-colored engraving was invented in 1702 by German Jakob Le Blon, which was at least 35 years after the publication of “Mundus Subterraneus”. Kircher’s motivation to produce a few copies of his books in color was one of pure experimentation. It is fairly certain through the analysis of 17th Century correspondence letters from Johannes Marcus Marci to Kircher that the Voynich manuscript, was for a period of time, in his possession. Johannes Marcus Marci, a Bohemian doctor and scientist, rector of the University of Prague, sent the enigmatic Voynich Manuscript to his long time friend, Athanasius Kircher, in the hope that Kircher was going to be able to decipher it. One of the extraordinary attributes of the enigmatic manuscript is the coloring of the illustrations. Modern day research analysis found the manuscript’s parchment pages to date back to the 15th century, with color added using iron gall ink (also known as iron gall nut ink, oak gall ink, and common ink), made from iron salts and tannic acids from vegetable sources.

Voynich Manuscript

The colored “Mundus Subterraneus” containing two volumes in one, has 19 engraved plates of which are 10 double-page, 2 double-page and folding, and 7 full-page. It also has 64 finely colored, by hand, engraved illustrations which contain one full-page and 2 on separate sheets. There are an additional 7 tables and numerous woodcut illustrations, some of which are also in color. While there is no indication as to whose hands applied the coloring to the engravings in Kircher’s work, one could dare to suggest that due to the contemporary nature of the work, it is quite possible that Anthony Heeres Siourtsma , pupil engraver of Dutch designer and copper engraver, Christin de Passe II, commissioned the job.

Mundus Subterraneus Kircher



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The Aitken Bible is one of the most celebrated American Bibles, considered to be the first complete English Bible printed in America. Before the War for Independence, British law gave a monopoly for printing the King James Version of the Bible to the Royal Printer; thus compelling the colonies to buy their Bibles from England. […]

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The 2nd quarter of 2016 felt the tremors caused by the UK affirmative Brexit vote. The subsequent drop in the value of the British currency delivered a rather controlled above normal interest in rare books offered in British pounds. Opportunistic buyers took advantage of the lower dollar or euro to sterling exchange rate, mostly through […]

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Hot new genre: Adult Coloring Books

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As coloring books for grown-ups have recently popped into the bestseller lists, (12 million sold in 2015), one cannot help but wonder how long it will take for collectors to turn their attention to this popular new genre of “adult coloring books”. Once considered a little more than a novelty, adult coloring books, are now almost considered a […]

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Within a short time, the concentration of high spots from the genre of magic and the supernatural has moved into private hands and institutional collections. The market irrupted, beginning in 1991, when illusionist David Copperfield bought the Mulholland Library of Conjuring & the Allied Arts (containing the world’s largest collection of Houdini memorabilia), for $2.2 […]

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Presently, independent booksellers are growing. According to the American Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookstores in the US has grown from 1,410 in 2010 to 1,712 in 2015. At the same time, the future of highly-capitalized chains, with their need for expensive, high-traffic locations seems uncertain. Barnes & Noble shrunk from 726 stores at […]

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Rare Book Sale Monitor Update – 1st Quarter 2016

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The value of books determined by the Rare Book Sale Monitor (RBSM) is achieved by selecting comparable sales and adjusting the prices according to the differences between the comparable sales and the item being evaluated. RBSM comparative pricing is produced by adjusting the sale price of a particular title that is closely monitored, by accounting […]

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