Bradley Allen Fiske, born 1854, had a long and illustrious career in the US Navy, peaking at the rank of rear admiral. Fiske wasn't just a naval officer, but a serial inventor. He's credited with many advancements in warfare technology, masterminding telescopic sights for ship artillery, an electric range finder, motorized gun turrets, as well as radio control and aerial launch systems for torpedoes. The list is exhaustive. And when he retired from service in his early 60s, a year before the US became involved in World War I, his passion for invention did not abate.
The stories behind many early inventions and concepts are somewhat lost in time, but not Fiske's Reading Machine. Whether it was down to his long naval career, his pedigree as an inventor or the unique nature of the contraption itself, Fiske's device captured the imaginations of his era. In 1922, his machine was covered in both Scientific American and Science and Invention magazines. Later articles appeared in The Miami News and Popular Mechanics magazine in 1926.
The Reading Machine was a metal, handheld device featuring a magnifying lens for one eye and a shield to mask the other. Using photo-engraving techniques, Fiske miniaturized printed texts onto cards roughly six inches high by two inches wide, far too small for any standard press to produce or human eye to read. A user would insert the card into the machine and read it through the magnifying lens, moving both the card and the eyepiece to switch between several columns of print. It was a simple but elegant way of compressing any text into something pocket-sized. To demonstrate the idea to journalists, Fiske condensed the first volume of Mark Twain's Innocent Abroad (a book of roughly 93,000 words) into 13 of these cards.
Fiske believed he had single-handedly revolutionized the publishing industry. Thanks to his ingenuity, books and magazines could be produced for a fraction of their current price. The cost of materials, presses, shipping and the burden of storage could also be slashed. He imagined magazines could be distributed by post for next to nothing, and most powerfully, that publishing in his format would allow everyone access to educational material and entertainment no matter their level of income.
Fiske filed at least 11 patents for his Reading Machine between 1920 and 1935. He experimented with various designs, the earliest of which used spools of paper rather than the cards that became his preferred format. He also manufactured at least a few different prototypes, one of which is under the care of The Rosenbach Museum & Library in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Fiske's Reading Machine never graduated to mass production, despite the press attention.