Capturing Metadata with the Kodak Autographer System…A Century Ago

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It feels funny to write a “news” story about something that was news nearly 100 years ago, but this little bit of photo history was just too cool not to share.

The excellent historical website Retronaut.com recently posted some vintage ads for the Kodak Autographic system, which allowed your great granddaddy (or someone's great granddaddy) to write notes directly on the film inside their cameras. The idea was that you could record information about each photo you took—the subject, the date, or other important things you didn't want to forget—and have it appear right next to the image on the film. In other words, many decades before the coming of digital cameras, XMP files, and Adobe Bridge, this was the cutting edge means of capturing what we now call metadata.

The back of an autographic camera was equipped with a narrow slot covered by a door. When you wanted to add a note to an image, you used a stylus to write onto a paper backing in the slot. Then to capture the note, you opened the door a second or two, and exposed the note and film underneath it to the light.

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Autographic window and stylus. Source: Flickr

Kodak introduced the autographic system in 1914 with great fanfare, but it never quite caught on, and was discontinued in 1932.

Nowadays our digital cameras can of course capture an incredible amount of metadata about an image, but if you still yearn to get your hands on something from a simpler time, head over to ebay where a vintage Autographic camera won't set you back too much.

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