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National Inventors’ Day – Emanuel Goldberg

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In honour of Thomas Edison, February 11th has become known as National Inventors’ Day in the United States and, increasingly so, around the world. Generally renowned for inventing the lightbulb, Edison amassed over 1,000 patents for his inventions through the years.

In relation to Edison’s telegraphic feats, today we give special mention to Emanuel Goldberg. Goldberg was a pioneer in electronic retrieval technology and is credited with developing early Optical Character Recognition. In 1914, Goldberg developed a machine that read characters and converted them into standard telegraph code.

Working with Zeiss Ikon throughout his years, Michael Buckland’s investigative publication on Goldberg details how contrary to public opinion, Goldberg created the first desktop search engine, developed microdot technology, and designed the famous Contax 35 mm camera. Buckland’s research highlights how Goldberg made significant contributions to almost every aspect of modern imaging technology, but through the vagaries of discrimination, politics, and cultural memory he has remained one of twentieth-century science’s forgotten men.

During the summer of 1927, Goldberg developed a self-defined “Statistical Machine” for searching microfilm archives using an optical code recognition system. In 1931 he was granted a patent for the technology which was later acquired by IBM.

At a technical session during the 1931 Congress of Photography, Goldberg presented a paper entitled ‘New Methods of Photographic Indexing’. It is possible, this was the first paper on electronic document retrieval and describes what seems to have been the first functioning document retrieval system using electronics.

In the 1970s, Kurzweil Computer Products developed omni-font OCR and decided that the best application of this technology would be to create a reading machine for the blind. In his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil details how “in 1974, computer programs that could recognise printed letters, called optical character recognition (OCR), were capable of handling only one or two specialised type styles.” However that year, Kurzweil founded a company to develop the first OCR program that could recognise any style of print.

Since the 70s, OCR has been widely used across industries allowing printed texts to be digitised enabling their electronic storage and indexing. The technology allows documents to be quickly searched, displayed and edited. Used for capturing data from items such as receipts, invoices and legal documents, OCR has been massively beneficial to companies investing in intelligent document capture and content management.

In recent times, the fact that OCR imitates the human reading process has let it to being tied to and labelled under Artificial Intelligence. Though that, perhaps, is a story for a different day. On National Inventors’ Day, here’s to Emanuel Goldberg!

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