In his 1932 article, Emmanuel Goldberg, the director of Zeiss-Ikon and highly regarded scientist in photographic and cinematographic technology, a proposed a method for using optics and the photoelectric cell to retrieve indexed documents stored on film. “If photography is in itself a recording technique,” he began, “a technique whose goal is to retain, to record natural appearances, so also there are particular kinds of photography in which the ‘recording’ itself, and not the image, is the goal.” By that, Goldberg, who had presented his paper at the 1931 International Congress for Scientific and Applied Photography, specifically referred to the “increasing trend to film the vast quantity of documents, checks, and messages which flow daily into offices and businesses.” The great number of items, however, made the retrieval of a particular image among several hundred frames contained on a film roll particularly difficult.
As a solution, Goldberg proposed a labeling system (carrying a description composed of numbers, letters, or dots) to intrinsically designate each document at the moment it was microfilmed. In order to search for that document, a template with the same label would be positioned in front of the film reel. Then, the film would be reeled in high-speed until both the template and the film annotation matched. When this happened, the photoelectric current would be interrupted, and the fast moving film stopped at the requested frame. Improving document access, he argued, could only be achieved mechanically, through the use of a simple optical system, in interaction with electricity. By 1931, two prototypes had been built at Zeiss-Ikon, but following Goldberg’s dismissal from his position as the company’s director in 1932 they were lost, and under the Nazi regime no attempts were made to resume the work. As library and media historians have argued, Goldberg’s machine constituted the first successful electronic document retrieval and prototypical “search engine” that “built” data into the film.