Microfilm At War: From Communication To Preservation

By: Jeffrey Kiley - Advantage Archives
Before email, there was V-Mail, and before that… pigeons, and eventually spies…and even pigeon spies. Today, microfilm is the unanimously agreed upon “preservation medium” for archivists around the world, but did you know about its storied military career?

When you hear the word “microfilm”, I am guessing you are more likely to think about archiving and libraries than the postoffice and wartime.  Yes, microfilm is the gold standard in the historical preservation of publications and documents, but did you know that microfilm was also used to facilitate communication in times of war?

The first wartime application of microfilm dates further back than you might think.  In 1870, the “pigeon post”  was utilized in the Siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. Pigeons proved themselves as reliable couriers, and capable messengers due to their natural homing abilities. Messages were created on photographic paper a little over an inch and 1/2 long, to permit insertion in the pigeon’s quill. The pigeons were transported to a destination in cages, where they would be attached with microfilm, then the pigeon would naturally fly back to its home where the recipient could read the message.

Microfilm had found its footing in the commercial sector by the mid-20s when George McCarthy, a New banker, developed he “Check-O-Graph” to make copies of canceled checks. By 1935 the Library of Congress had used microfilm to preserve over 3 million books and manuscripts. 1935 also saw the New York Times become the first publisher to film their newspaper on 35mm microfilm, ushering in the era of newspaper preservation on film.

In 1941, microfilm was called back into military service for the first time in over six decades. Sixty-four years after Siege of Paris, the British introduced the North Atlantic Air Mail Service that would deliver an “Airgraph” as a method to restore postal service to their troops holding the Suez Canal in WWII. The post had been severely disrupted due to Germany and Italy controlling essential territories in the Middle East. Established routes to the Atlantic were cut off because the Axis also held key positions in the Meditrainan and Northern Africa. Since ships were forced to circumvent the entire continent of Africa from the to reach a destination relatively close to the homeland, mail could be delayed by over six months.

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Utilizing the resources available to them, they employed Kodak Recordak microfilm cameras that were being used by banks to maintain their records. They engaged Kodak Ltd, who already had facilities to service Egypt and London, as well as other key locations, to facilitate the process. “Airgraph” later became a registered trademark for the company. Messages were composed on a specialized standard form and captured onto16mm microfilm. The microfilm was flown to its destination in days or weeks as opposed to months, where it was developed into a full-size print, and delivered to the intended recipient.

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1942 ushered in the era of “Victory Mail”. Taking their cues from their British Allies, the United States launched the “Army Micro Photographic Mail Service,” which was much more well known as “V-Mail”. Once again, Kodak was contracted to provide the service that became the primary method of communication between soldiers on the front lines and family at home. Correspondence was written on small letter sheets that were 7″ wide by 9″ tall and sent to the processing center in a self-mailing envelope. It was censored by inspectors before being microfilmed and transported. Once it reached its destination, the microfilm negatives would be printed. Instead of enlarging the reproduction to the original size as the British did, V-Mail was printed 1/2 size due to the scarcity of paper.

V-mail ensured that thousands of tons of shipping space could be reserved for war materials. The 37 mail bags required to carry 150,000 one-page letters could be replaced by a single mail sack. The weight of that same amount of mail was reduced dramatically from over 2,500lbs to only 45lbs. More than a billion V-Mail letters were delivered between June 1942 and November 1, 1945, when V-Mail service ended.

The use of V-mail also inadvertently deterred espionage; as only photocopies of letters were being sent, invisible ink and microdots were rendered useless.  In addition, letters could not be “lost” in transit; every message carried a serial number, and new copies could be printed if necessary.

Despite this, microfilm was an integral tool for the espionage community well into the cold war years. While no longer viable to communicate and monitor troop movements and munitions that were commonplace prior to V-Mail, microfilm still had a unique appeal in covert operations.

Used often to transport sensitive information or deliver documents without them being found, microfilm was a “master of disguise”. Spies could steal classified documents by filming them on small cameras, which were easy to conceal in the shell of more commonplace items. Camera wristwatches, keychains,  cigarette lighters and cases, hairbrushes, pocket watches, and even lapel buttons hid microfilm or microdot cameras to film papers that were held up to a light source and read by magnifying glass, or on readers disguised as anything as large as a briefcase or as compact as a cigar box. These were all real instruments of the spy-trade, and not just imaginative props used on the set of a James Bond movie.

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After the war, European nations were all too aware of the cultural loss war could cause. To safeguard items of historical significance against the possibility of destruction, organizations throughout Europe began extensive microfilming projects to preserve books, documents, files, records, and newspapers, and the United States followed their lead.

To bring things full circle, in 1978, the East Germans put a pigeon on trial for espionage. You read that correctly. East Germany once put a pigeon on trial as a spy, found the bird guilty, and sentenced it to execution. The feathered agent was dispatched on its top-secret missions exactly like its ancestors during the  Franco-Prussian War over 100 years before, and again through two world wars.  The bird’s foot had been fitted with a tiny capsule that contained microfilm destined for an agent waiting in Hamburg. Agent Pigeon was convicted of attempting to transport vital information and secrets to West Germany.

At Advantage, we focus on preservation as opposed to communication, and sadly, we have no pigeons. Still, if for some odd reason that in the age of Email, we are forced to revisit the idea of V-mail to connect our servicemen and women across the globe…then I guess Advantage is ready to serve our country. In the meantime, we will continue to use microfilm to archive the pages of history, as it is the only proven long term preservation method for newspaper & document preservation.

We believe strongly in building long-lasting partnerships and want to be an active participant in your community’s efforts to make your history more accessible. We work together to archive & provide practical digital access to local historical content in print, that would otherwise be lost to the erosion of time. If you would like to see more local history preserved for future generations, or online for the current one, please contact your local library, newspaper publisher, genealogical society, historical society, or educational institution, and encourage them to learn more about creating a Community History Archive or have them contact us at (855) 303-2727.

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