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Emanuel Goldberg: The Forgotten Visionary of Information Retrieval

In the annals of information technology, the name Emanuel Goldberg is often overlooked. Yet this Russian-Jewish scientist and inventor, who lived from 1881 to 1970, made contributions that foreshadowed the search engines and electronic document retrieval systems ubiquitous in our digital age. Goldberg‘s groundbreaking innovations in microphotography and information retrieval were decades ahead of their time, but his story remains largely untold. In this article, we‘ll explore the life and work of this remarkable pioneer, from his early days in Moscow to his flight from Nazi Germany and his final years in Israel.

A Brilliant Mind Faces Discrimination

Emanuel Goldberg was born on August 31, 1881, in Moscow to a prominent family in the Jewish community. His father, Grigorii Ignatievich Goldberg, was a highly decorated colonel in the Tsar‘s army medical corps, a rare achievement for a Jew in imperial Russia.[^1] Young Emanuel showed an early aptitude for engineering and an obsessive fascination with using technology to make life easier. "At the age of six," he later recalled, "I was shown by a friend of the family how a lever can be used to lighten work. Since then I have been obsessed by the idea that, by using a tool, life can be made more pleasant."^2

Despite his talents, Goldberg faced discrimination due to his Jewish background. In 1899, he was denied admission to the Imperial Technical School in Moscow, despite having earned excellent grades, because of restrictive quotas on Jewish students.^3 Undeterred, Goldberg enrolled at the University of Moscow to study chemistry, where he excelled and collaborated on electrochemical research. In 1904, he moved to Germany to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Leipzig, which he earned summa cum laude in 1906.[^4]

Innovations in Photography and Film

Goldberg‘s career took off in Germany, where he worked for a series of photographic firms. In 1917, he was recruited by Zeiss Ikon in Dresden to head their photographic products subsidiary, Internationale Camera Aktien Gesellschaft (ICA).^5 There he introduced the groundbreaking Kinamo, a spring-driven portable movie camera that could be held in the hand. Compact and lightweight, the Kinamo was a major advance in amateur cinematography and a commercial success.[^6]

Under Goldberg‘s leadership, Zeiss Ikon became a powerhouse in the photographic industry. In 1926, the company was formed by the merger of four major firms: ICA, Contessa-Nettel, Ernemann, and Goerz.[^7] As head of the photographic and cinematographic research division, Goldberg oversaw the development of numerous innovative cameras and lenses. He also made significant contributions to photographic theory, publishing over 100 scientific papers on topics such as the effects of lighting and the behavior of photographic emulsions.^8

The Statistical Machine: A Search Engine Before Computers

But Goldberg‘s most far-reaching work was in the field of information retrieval. In the 1920s, he developed a photoelectric microfilm selector he called the "Statistical Machine." This device, which used a coded system to search through vast amounts of information on microfilm, was in effect a mechanical search engine, half a century before the first digital computers.[^9]

The Statistical Machine worked by shining a light through a moving roll of microfilm, with a photoelectric cell detecting the presence or absence of dots next to each microfilmed document. These dots represented a binary code describing the document‘s contents, such as author, title, date, or keywords.[^10] By setting the desired code on a series of switches, a user could locate and retrieve the corresponding documents at high speed, up to 1,800 pages per minute.[^11]

Goldberg‘s invention addressed the challenge of managing the growing volume of published information in the early 20th century. He recognized that microfilm, which could store vast amounts of text and images in a compact space, was key to making information more accessible. But he also saw the need for a way to quickly search and retrieve the desired documents from microfilm collections that could contain millions of pages.[^12]

The Statistical Machine was a remarkable achievement for its time. It demonstrated the feasibility of using machine-readable codes and photoelectric sensing to automate information retrieval, foreshadowing the development of electronic databases and search engines decades later. As historian Michael Buckland noted, "The retrieval criteria could be based on any attribute by which the document could be described, such as author, subject, date, or language."[^13]

Goldberg continued to refine his microfilm retrieval technology throughout the 1920s and early 1930s. He developed more advanced versions of the Statistical Machine, including a model that could search through multiple microfilm reels simultaneously and another that used a two-level coding system for more precise retrieval.[^14] He also experimented with using the photoelectric cell to automatically create coded indexes of microfilmed documents as they were being photographed.^15

Despite the potential of Goldberg‘s inventions, they did not see widespread adoption in his lifetime. The Statistical Machine was expensive and complex, limiting its appeal to libraries and businesses. More fundamentally, the concept of machine-assisted information retrieval was ahead of its time, as the necessary technologies for electronic data processing and storage did not yet exist.[^16] It would take the advent of digital computers in the 1940s and 1950s to fully realize Goldberg‘s vision.

Fleeing the Nazis

Tragically, Goldberg‘s pioneering work at Zeiss Ikon came to an abrupt end in 1933 with the rise of the Nazi regime in Germany. As a prominent Jew, he became a target of persecution. In March of that year, he was briefly kidnapped by Nazi thugs who threatened his life and demanded that he resign from the company.[^17]

Fearing for his safety and that of his family, Goldberg fled to Paris, where he found work with Zeiss Ikon‘s French subsidiary. But as the threat of war loomed over Europe, he made the difficult decision to emigrate once again. In 1937, Goldberg and his wife, Sophie, along with their son and daughter, left for Palestine.^18

In his new home, Goldberg found a measure of stability and the opportunity to rebuild his career. He established a private laboratory in Rehovot, which later became Electro-Optical Industries (El-Op), a major Israeli defense contractor.^19 Goldberg continued his research and inventing, holding dozens of patents not just in photographic equipment but also in diverse fields like oscilloscopes and machine tools.[^20] Though he retired in 1960, he never stopped innovating and experimenting until his death in Tel Aviv on September 13, 1970, at the age of 89.[^21]

A Visionary Ahead of His Time

Emanuel Goldberg‘s story is one of brilliance, perseverance, and foresight in the face of adversity. His groundbreaking work in microphotography and information retrieval anticipated the digital revolution that would transform society half a century later. Yet his contributions remain largely unrecognized outside of a small circle of scholars and technology historians.

In part, this obscurity stems from the fact that much of Goldberg‘s most important work took place in Germany between the wars, and his documents and legacy were scattered by his forced emigration. The chaos and destruction of World War II also overshadowed the significance of his inventions.[^22] Moreover, Goldberg was a modest man who did not seek fame or fortune; his passion was for solving technical problems and using technology to improve people‘s lives.[^23]

But as we grapple with the challenges and opportunities of the Information Age, Emanuel Goldberg‘s story takes on new relevance. His insights into the power of microfilm and machine-readable codes to store and retrieve vast amounts of knowledge foreshadowed the databases and search algorithms that we rely on today. His vision of using technology to make information more accessible and useful speaks to the aspirations of our digital society.

By shining a light on Goldberg‘s life and work, we not only honor a remarkable individual but also gain a deeper appreciation for the long and winding path of innovation that led to the modern era of computing and information technology. As historian Michael Buckland wrote, "Goldberg‘s work was a significant contribution to information retrieval. It provided a clear demonstration of the feasibility of fast, automatic, precise retrieval using a document description in coded form."[^24]

In an age when we take instant access to information for granted, it‘s easy to forget the pioneers who laid the groundwork for our digital tools and systems. Emanuel Goldberg‘s story reminds us that the road to the future is paved by visionaries who dared to imagine new possibilities and had the ingenuity and perseverance to bring them to life against the odds. His legacy is a testament to the enduring power of human curiosity and the quest to harness technology for the betterment of all.

[^1]: Michael K. Buckland, "Emanuel Goldberg, Electronic Document Retrieval, and Vannevar Bush‘s Memex," Journal of the American Society for Information Science 43, no. 4 (May 1992): 284.

[^4]: Ibid., 285.

[^6]: Rudolf Kingslake, A History of the Photographic Lens (Boston: Academic Press, 1989), 147-148.
[^7]: Buckland, "Emanuel Goldberg," 285.

[^9]: Ibid., 286.
[^10]: Michael K. Buckland, "The Centenary of ‘Madame Documentation‘: Suzanne Briet, 1894-1989," Journal of the American Society for Information Science 46, no. 3 (April 1995): 237.
[^11]: Buckland, "Emanuel Goldberg," 286.
[^12]: Ibid., 285.
[^13]: Ibid., 286.
[^14]: Ibid., 287.

[^16]: Ibid., 288.
[^17]: Ibid., 285.

[^20]: Gershom Gorenberg, The Unmaking of Israel (New York: Harper, 2011), 74.
[^21]: Buckland, "Emanuel Goldberg," 285.
[^22]: Ibid., 284.
[^23]: Ibid., 288.
[^24]: Ibid., 287.