In 1931, the American Surrealist writer Bob Brown invented a reading machine. The device produced a form of machine-assisted speed reading, in which micrographically-printed text would scroll under a magnification screen in a single, streaming line. Where cinema gave the world the ‘talkies’, Brown offered ‘the readies’, and important writers like Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams helped him demonstrate its potential. However, Brown’s reading machine never went into production, and even though he is gaining popularity as the ‘godfather of the e-reader’, some people still doubt whether Brown’s machine actually worked.

Recently, however, the Avant-Gardes and Speculative Technology (AGAST) Project at Oxford Brookes University have teamed up with MakerSpace, the Ashmolean Museum, and EOF Hackspace to reconstruct his prototype!

AGAST is a cross-disciplinary research group associated with PAL and Co-Creation that re-imagines the inventions of 20th-century avant-gardes using AR technology. In a series of community workshops at the new MakerSpace at Oxfordshire County Libraries, we invited local teens to help us retro-engineer and then build reading machines and write about the ‘future of reading’ in Oxford.

The prototypes, built with vintage and 3D printed parts, complete with micro-printed texts, were exhibited with other AGAST reading machine projects at a lecture by Eric White at the Ashmolean Museum. They are now on permanent display at MakerSpace.