September 2012 | Nate Pedersen

Backlighting New Discoveries: An Interview with Ian Christie-Miller

We recently ran a story on a new imaging technology that allows researchers to see beneath a writer's blacked-out sections on a manuscript.  The technology, invented by Ian Christie-Miller, was put to use by the Victoria and Albert Museum to uncover textual changes in Dickens manuscripts.  After our story ran, Christie-Miller got in touch to let us know more about the technology and its potential.  What follows are excerpts from our e-mail conversation:

dickens manuscript-thumb-500x300-4128.jpgNP: When did you invent the imaging system and how does it work?

ICM: The ?rst imaging system was needed about 15 years ago when I had to date a French Kabbalistic manuscript. There are three versions of this manuscript by the French Franciscan Jean Thenaud - the Paris one is on vellum and is dated 1521; the Geneva one is on paper and is dated 1536; the Nantes one is undated.

So I made a device at home, based on use of a 1 mm thick electroluminescent light sheet. My home-made device allowed images of watermarks to be captured safely. Later research, guided by John Simmons of Oxford, allowed me to date the Nantes copy to the ?rst quarter of the seventeenth century. This proved that the Nantes one is the youngest. Success!

Later the UK government Department of Trade and Industry granted me a £10,000 SMART award to have my Advanced Paper Imaging System (APIS) made and marketed. In the UK, for instance, it has been used by Leeds University to image a copy of the Koran. In Spain it has been used with a manuscript of the Apocalypse.
Since then the system has been greatly simplified and developed. One development is the use of infrared.

The most simple is the earlyVIEWER which allows watermarks to be found and to be imaged safely with the use of a digital camera or even with a cell phone.

NP: What potential do you see in this technology?

ICM: There are two avenues of potential.

The ?rst is use of the full system as the means of revealing hidden texts. The ?rst success that I enjoyed with this was at the Sir John Soane's Museum of London. They hold many drawings by the famous architect Robert Adam. Some of the drawings had been stuck into albums by the great man himself. This meant that pictures on the lower side could not be seen. Happily use of my backlighting system, when combined with front lit images, duly processed on a computer, soon revealed the previously hidden drawings

And the addition of infrared opens up further possibilities. IR, for instance, passes through some inks. This can be exploited. It means, for example, that when handwriting obscures printed ink the use of IR (with a suitable camera) just does not 'see' the handwriting.
The second is to empower individuals. earlyVIEWER is designed to take advanced imaging from behind the scenes and to make it available to any owner of a cell phone.

NP: Are you partnered with the Victoria and Albert museum in an of?cial capacity?

ICM: The V&A have bought a number of my specialist imaging devices and they have also called me in on occasions for imaging work.

NP: Could you tell us a bit more about the Dickens project and how you got involved with it:

ICM: The V&A Conservation Department knew from our previous contacts that my imaging system might be able to reveal hidden texts in their holding of Dickens autograph manuscripts. Their hunch proved correct. Success has been reported in the press as far away as India, as can be seen here.

NP: Could you tell us a bit about your SMART grant and what that means for the future of your imaging system?

ICM: In itself the SMART award was a great encouragement. It was also essential for allowing a professionally made version of my concept to be marketed.

Since then digital cameras have become widely available and the latest developments take advantage of this. The current earlybook imaging system and the earlyVIEWER are simpler to use than the APIS. And cheaper.

NP: Any other interesting things to share about the system or the project's future?

ICM: The future is bright but not without frustrations.

Backlighting, especially when combined with front lighting, opens up a totally new dimension for research and discovery. Archivists, librarians and researchers are increasingly aware of this.

Here is a small example. Without doubt the most in??uential printed book in English is the 1611 Authorized (King James) version of the Bible. Most of it, including such phrases as 'the powers that be', go back to William Tyndale's New Testament. There is some doubt about the place of printing of that 1526 version. (There are only three known copies of it extant). Here is a (very much reduced in size for ease of transmission) image of a watermark from Tyndale's 1526 New Testament, no less.

tntCROSSE3cm.jpgThis Basle crozier supports the likelihood that the book was printed in Worms.

[Image taken by me, with earlyVIEWER, courtesy of Wuerttembergische Landesbibliothek].

Fuller information here

The frustration is that archivists and librarian do not have the imaging facilities to offer. Researchers do not ask for the images / facilities because they know that they are not available.

Thank you so much for giving me this chance to air the situation. It will help make sure that what is on offer becomes available ever more widely.

For further information about the imaging system, contact Ian Christie-Miller at