This Expedient Microfiche Reader Illuminates Retro Datasheets

You have to be of a certain vintage to remember doing research on microfilm and microfiche. Before the age of mass digitization of public records, periodicals, and other obscure bits of history, dead-tree records were optically condensed onto fine-grain film, either in roll form or as flat sheets, which were later enlarged and displayed on a specialized reader. This greatly reduced the storage space needed for documents, but it ended up being a technological dead-end once the computer age rolled around.

This was the problem [CuriousMarc] recently bumped into — a treasure trove of Hewlett-Packard component information on microfiche, but no reader for the diminutive datasheets. So naturally, he built his own microfiche reader. In a stroke of good luck, he had been gifted a low-cost digital microscope that seemed perfect for the job. The scope, with an HD camera and 5″ LCD screen, was geared more toward reflective than transmissive use, though, so [Marc] had trouble getting a decent picture of the microfiches, even with a white paper backing.

Version 2.0 used a cast-off backlight, harvested from a defunct DVD player screen, as a sort of light box for the stage of the microscope. It was just about the perfect size for the microfiches, and the microscope was able to blow up the tiny characters as well as any dedicated microfiche reader could, at a fraction of the price. Check out the video below for details on the build, as well as what [Marc] learned from the data sheets about his jackpot of HP parts.

With the wealth of data stored on microforms, we’re surprised that we haven’t seen any readers like this before. We have talked about microscopic wartime mail, though.

20 thoughts on “This Expedient Microfiche Reader Illuminates Retro Datasheets

  1. Neat story. Takes me back to high school/college days having to look up decades old references via those microfiche machines!

    And oh my, the inventory of HP parts he has at the 1:35 point in the video!!!!!

  2. i received one of the cheapest digital microscopes as a gift, and it is obviously extremely limited but i have had a bunch of fun with it. i was sure astonished when my wife (a librarian) borrowed it to spot check title/header lines on some microfiche she was filing! amazing what you can do with just a little magnification

  3. As a child I occasionally used to accompany my dad to work at his Renault garage, and by way of entertainment he’d hand me the box of microfiche service manuals and sit me in front of the reader, and I’d sit there fascinated by these things, exploring this microscopic world. Looking back now it’s so charmingly simplistic and analogue but at the time it seemed thrillingly high tech…

    1. The irony: take a 12×12 cm piece of microfilm and see how many documents fit on there. Then take a CD and see how many of the same documents you can fit in when each one is a 50 MB scanned PDF. (hint: about 12.)

  4. Hopefully VCuriousMarc, s able to, and will be willing to share his microfiche treasure, via the WWW.

    I have some dining room table sized, if not larger schematics of /\/\otorola tube high band VHF receiver, and transmitter strips. Hams use those to began the amateur radio FM mobile radio era. Those become obsolete, for commercial use, due to a past FCC narrow banding mandate, that many forgot about, or never heard of it. The tech tat operated the local motorala shop at the time penciled in, the needed modifications to get the strips to function on 2M. They are pushing 50 YO, and are quite fragile. I’d like to save images of them for ham radio history’s sake. They are too frfagile to pin to a wall to photo graph. Perhaps placing them on large table, and using a wand type scanner would work. However that might have to wait until the pandemic subside, so the facilitied that have largee enough tables reopen. forums, hackaday, would had been I good place , to to post this last paragraph IMO those forums never stood a chance of being what that could haveve benn, because there was no promotion of their existence.

          1. I have a huge collection of old electronics magazines spanning decades in my office. I tried donating it to a makerspace but nobody read them and the owner eventually told me he was going to pitch them if I didn’t want them back. I couldn’t bear to let that happen.

            They take up way too much space that I could sorely use for organizing newer things. This room is a mess! Almost all of these are available as scans at So should I even be bothering with my dead-tree copies?

            One nagging question that has helped save them from the recycling bin so far… what is the legality of those scans? My understanding is that this stuff will never be public domain at least until some time after Disney gives up on Mickey Mouse. Even if whoever has inherited the rights to the long closed publishers wanted to open their licenses for all they couldn’t because each contributing author still own rights. Chasing down all their heirs to get permission would be an impossible task.

            It’s unfortunate as for those of us who frequent sites like HaD this is our cultural heritage.

            So how is doing it?

          2. AFAIK most of the stuff on worldradio is from defunct companies with no obvious copyright successor. Also older stuff would have had to have it’s US copyright specifically updated for a fee sometime in the 80s and with the chopping and changing of publishers in the magazine world that may not have happened. A further thing that may apply to some is that works commissioned for a magazine or periodical where copyright was assigned to them had much shorter copyright terms, like 25 years. Things specifically labelled as copyright the author should still theoretically have that life plus copyright, unless permission to distribute given. IANAL though so that’s just my perception of the sitch.

          3. .. and yah, I thought I’d get rid of a lot of old Popular Mechanics when google books made them available, but soon found they were badly OCRed and search interface is very hit and miss. Even if you know what month and year you want you have to dick around for 10 minutes to dig it out sometimes. There are also bad scans with pages missing (and whole issues), people’s hands in the way with the page half turned, ripped pages and some that are scribbled all over (Scanned from library copies) so kind of an imperfect archive. So I’ve still got my hard copies for backup, and I still pick up odd pre-1980 copies of those, Mechanix Illustrated, Popular Science, and many of the Electronics mags, though they had a tendency to repeat stuff on a 3 or 4 year cycle, when I see them if they’ve got something interesting in. Thankfully I’ve got enough basement that a couple of totes don’t feel like they’re squeezing me out, yet. I have a plan to eventually scan all mine and index them, don’t trust “forever” availability online. There’s people try hosting well known to be PD for 50 years plus stuff like Dickens etc, and their ISP gets so hammered by copyright trolls (We published an edition in 2010 and yours is 99% similar, no shit you downloaded the same source.) that not many people keep them up unless they’re fully self hosting and don’t give a rats ass.

    1. As far as I know Canadian Blood Services still uses microfiche to store their long term blood donation records. After the tainted blood scandal with the Red Cross they are very careful to preserve all their records in a form that is stable and permanently accessible.

      1. Here’s what Wikipedia says…

        “Early cut sheet microforms and microfilms (to the 1930s) were printed on nitrate film, which poses high risks to their holding institutions, as nitrate film is chemically unstable and a fire hazard. From the late 1930s to the 1980s, microfilms were usually printed on a cellulose acetate base, which is prone to tears, vinegar syndrome, and redox blemishes. Vinegar syndrome is the result of chemical decay and produces “buckling and shrinking, embrittlement, and bubbling”.[16] Redox blemishes are yellow, orange or red spots 15–150 micrometres in diameter created by oxidative attacks on the film, and are largely due to poor storage conditions.[17]”

        So you have a point.

    2. This is why your government offices STILL microfilm their records. At work I have access to records dating back to the early 1800s. We know it will last, and we have multiple copies made to ensure that. Just try reading the floppy disk you made 20-30 years ago… Even if you can manage to get the bits off it, good luck with a compatible program. Sure, our working copy is on computer, but that film is stored offsite in a secure location, with specialists in maintatining that type of format, and monitoring records to have them reproduced as needed.

  5. Since the microscope only sees an area around 1cm x 1cm, it’s kind of overkill to use a 7″ display backlight for this. Better to use a piece of picture frame glass as the base, and put a piece of translucent acrylic under the center of that, backlit by a single LED. This would also make a nice stage for using the microscope to view transparent objects.

    1. Another possibility is to use a kid’s light board for tracing pictures. Just an illuminated and diffused white panel.

      Bigger than necessary, but there’s a Crayola one on the market for $15, so there are probably cheaper ones available.

      One reason to use a larger backlight would be if using a DLSR instead of a microscope, in which case it could handle larger transparencies.

  6. After 20 years in NCR field service I only have one microfiche left for the ANSWER printer (a 40 column 4 solenoid dot-matrix receipt printer) and my microfiche Bible. Wish I would have kept all the fiches when we closed the old office.

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