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The Art of Repairing and Digitizing a 400-year-old 3D Book

From the BODY WORLDS exhibition to Brain Surgery Live, it’s clear that modern humans are pretty curious about what goes on beneath our skin. But this is hardly a new phenomenon: More than 400 years ago, an intricate lift-the-flap anatomy book called Catoptrum Microcosmicum was a smash hit in Europe.

“Back then, pictures of the body were a lot less frequent, and there wasn’t anything like x-rays,” Steve Novak, head of Archives & Special Collections at Columbia University, tells mental_floss. “This satisfied a very basic curiosity about how the body is formed. And then there’s that pregnant woman in the middle of the first page. In the 17th century, as today, sex sells … and in the 17th century, I think that qualified as sex.”

The book was so popular that it was reprinted again and again, and some copies are still around today. One of those copies lives in the collection of Columbia’s Health Sciences Library, where staff members have recently restored and digitized the fragile book. 

The book, a 1661 edition, came to the library in pretty rough shape. Its parchment cover had stretched, which caused the book to warp. At some point in the last few centuries, someone had spilled a dark liquid onto the pages, rendering some of the text unreadable.

A conservator carefully removed the cover and took the book apart. He then crafted a new cover out of paper and leather—materials common in bookmaking in the 17th century—and hand-stitched the book back together. 

Next came the stain removal, which was accomplished using a device called a suction table. The conservator washed the stained pages with water, then sucked out the moisture before it could spread. 

The paper flaps themselves were quite jumbled, and some were torn. The conservator delicately disentangled them, then applied a thin tissue backing to make them just a little sturdier.

Once the book was clean and sturdy, it went to the library’s reprography department, where expert photographers painstakingly captured every inch of every page. They used tiny brushes and panes of glass to separate the flaps, each of which took quite a long time to photograph. 

“It’s not a matter of just putting it underneath the camera and flipping pages,” digital imaging manager Dave Ortiz explains. “Just to do the three flapped pages took us upward of eight or nine days.” 

Once the photo shoots had ended, the imaging staff compiled a master version of the book, which is now available to the public online. Alexis Hagadorn, head of the library's conservation program, says she's thrilled with the outcome: “It’s really exciting. Because of the conservation treatment and the care with the high-resolution imaging, you can actually see a lot more online than you can working directly from the book. It’s a really perfect example of how conservation and reprography and special collections departments all work together. We have this new technology to bring to bear on much older things, and we’re finding new ways to make them accessible to people who want to see them.”

Steve Novak agrees. The book is a treasure, he says—not only as an object, but also as a window into history. “It’s a wonderful example of popular science writing,” he says, made all the more impressive because it came “… from a time when science was really just getting started.”

To see the book online or download it for your e-reader, visit Archive.org.

Banner image via YouTube.

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Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus, Ely Kish, c. 1976. © Canadian Museum of Nature
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10 Ways Artists Imagined Dinosaurs Before the 21st Century
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In paleoart, “the lines between entertainment and science, kitsch and scholarship, are often vague," Ford writes in the preface to Paleoart. "This book is like a twofold time machine from a science-fiction comic i would have loved as a child. It allows us to go back in time to see what going back in time used to look like.”

Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus, Ely Kish, c. 1976. © Canadian Museum of Nature

Paleoart: Visions of the Prehistoric Past explores the first 160 years of illustrating extinct species.

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10 Things You Should Know About Ray Bradbury
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Evening Standard/Getty Images

For such a visionary futurist whose predictions for the future often came true, Ray Bradbury was rather old-fashioned in many ways. In honor of what would be Bradbury's 97th birthday, check out a few fascinating facts about the literary genius. 

1. HE SCORED HIS FIRST WRITING GIG WHEN HE WAS STILL A TEEN. 

Most teenagers get a first job bagging groceries or slinging burgers. At the age of 14, Ray Bradbury landed himself a gig writing for George Burns and Gracie Allen’s radio show.

“I went down on Figueroa Street in front of the Figueroa Playhouse,” Bradbury later recalled. “I saw George Burns outside the front of the theater. I went up to him and said, ‘Mr. Burns, you got your broadcast tonight don’t you?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘You don’t have an audience in there do you?’ He said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘Will you take me in and let me be your audience?’ So he took me in and put me in the front row, and the curtain went up, and I was in the audience for Burns and Allen. I went every Wednesday for the broadcast and then I wrote shows and gave them to George Burns. They only used one—but they did use it, it was for the end of the show.”

2. IT TOOK HIM 22 YEARS TO ASK A GIRL OUT.

At the age of 22, Bradbury finally summoned up the courage to ask a girl out for the first time ever. She was a bookstore clerk named Maggie, who thought he was stealing from the bookstore because he had a long trench coat on. They went out for coffee, which turned into cocktails, which turned into dinner, which turned into marriage, which turned into 56 anniversaries and four children. She was the only girl Bradbury ever dated. Maggie held down a full-time job while Ray stayed at home and wrote, something that was virtually unheard of in the 1940s.

3. HE IMPRESSED TRUMAN CAPOTE.

George Burns isn’t the only famous eye Bradbury caught. In 1947, an editor at Mademoiselle read Bradbury’s short story, “Homecoming,” about the only human boy in a family of supernatural beings. The editor decided to run the piece, and Bradbury won a place in the O. Henry Prize Stories for one of the best short stories of 1947. That young editor who helped Bradbury out by grabbing his story out of the unsolicited materials pile? Truman Capote.

4. HE HAD AN AVERSION TO CARS.

Charley Gallay/Getty Images

Not only did Bradbury never get a driver’s license, he didn’t believe in cars for anyone. His own personal aversion came from seeing a fatal car accident when he was just 16. In 1996, he told Playboy, “I saw six people die horribly in an accident. I walked home holding on to walls and trees. It took me months to begin to function again. So I don't drive. But whether I drive or not is irrelevant. The automobile is the most dangerous weapon in our society—cars kill more than wars do.”

5. HE WROTE FAHRENHEIT 451 IN JUST OVER A WEEK.

It took Bradbury just nine days to write Fahrenheit 451—and he did it in the basement of the UCLA library on a rented typewriter. (The title of his classic novel, by the way, comes from the temperature at which paper burns without being exposed to flame.)

6. HE DIDN'T ATTEND COLLEGE.

Though he wrote Fahrenheit 451 at UCLA, he wasn't a student there. In fact, he didn’t believe in college. “I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money,” Bradbury told The New York Times in 2009. “When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”

7. HE LOATHED COMPUTERS.

Despite his writings about all things futuristic, Bradbury loathed computers. “We are being flimflammed by Bill Gates and his partners,” he told Playboy in 1996. “Look at Windows '95. That's a lot of flimflam, you know.” He also stated that computers were nothing more than typewriters to him, and he certainly didn’t need another one of those. He also called the Internet “old-fashioned": “They type a question to you. You type an answer back. That’s 30 years ago. Why not do it on the telephone, which is immediate? Why not do it on TV, which is immediate? Why are they so excited with something that is so backward?”

8. HE WAS PALS WITH WALT DISNEY.

Not only was Bradbury good friends with Walt Disney (and even urged him to run for mayor of Los Angeles), he helped contribute to the Spaceship Earth ride at Epcot, submitting a story treatment that they built the ride around.

He was a big fan of the Disney parks, saying, “Everyone in the world will come to these gates. Why? Because they want to look at the world of the future. They want to see how to make better human beings. That’s what the whole thing is about. The cynics are already here and they’re terrifying one another. What Disney is doing is showing the world that there are alternative ways to do things that can make us all happy. If we can borrow some of the concepts of Disneyland and Disney World and Epcot, then indeed the world can be a better place.”

9. HE WANTED HIS ASHES TO BE SENT TO MARS IN A SOUP CAN.

He once said that when he died, he planned to have his ashes placed in a Campbell’s Tomato Soup can and planted on Mars. Then he decided that he wanted to have a place his fans could visit, and thought he’d design his own gravestone that included the names of his books. As a final touch, a sign at his gravesite would say Place dandelions here, “as a tribute to Dandelion Wine, because so many people love it.” In the end, he ended up going with something a whole lot simpler—a plain headstone bearing his name and “Author of Fahrenheit 451.” Go take him some dandelions the next time you’re in L.A.—he’s buried at Westwood Memorial Park.

10. NASA PAID TRIBUTE TO HIM.

Perhaps a more fitting memorial is the one NASA gave him when they landed a rover on Mars a few months after Bradbury’s death in 2012: They named the site where Mars Curiosity touched down "Bradbury Landing."

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