Robot brings black history into Internet age

Baltimore's Afro-American newspaper has a rich photo archive — 1.5 million images dating from the Depression, World War II and the civil rights era up to today.

But one of the nation's oldest African-American newspapers didn't have the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to digitize its historic images for the Internet age. Now, thanks to a little robot built by a former Johns Hopkins student, the effort has gotten a lot cheaper.

Using off-the-shelf electronics, Thomas Smith, a 2011 Hopkins graduate, built Gado, a swiveling, motorized arm with a nozzle that uses vacuum suction to "grab" photos and place them on a scanner. It can take digital snapshots of the front and back of a new photo every 42 seconds — and these images are steadily being made available online with the Afro's digital article archive.

"The articles we have are incredible," said John Oliver Jr., the Afro's publisher. "And when you match them with the pictures, we've got the history."

The effort, dubbed Project Gado, is a revolutionary step toward lowering the cost of digitizing large printed photo archives. Archiving photographs in digital formats can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, due to a combination of machine and human labor costs. But Smith and his startup company, which is marketing the technology, sees it as an inexpensive solution for publishers, historical societies, municipal archives and others with large photo collections to convert to digital.

"It can be incredibly disruptive," Smith said. "Right now, there are high upfront costs, and a lot of organizations don't want to do it. But if you lower the cost enough, you can take the risk of digitization."

In addition to preserving its archives for the Internet generation, the Afro hopes to make money off the sale of images on its website, a trend mirrored at other news organizations, including The Baltimore Sun, that aim to find new revenue in archival content. The Afro, for instance, is selling the digital photos for between $40 and $100. The newspaper underwent an earlier digitization effort for its article archives —Google Inc.scanned most of its old printed articles and made them available online.

Under Project Gado, more than 6,000 photos published in the Afro are now available for viewing and purchasing at

The robot captured the attention of Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland's state archivist. He said he hopes Smith and Gado can secure a grant to digitize Baltimore City's official photo archives — a collection of up to 30,000 images that show city neighborhoods and official events. He said the state archives can't afford expensive automated machines, but Gado offers a cheaper, effective solution.

"I'm very impressed with the thoughtfulness with the way [Gado] is put together," said Papenfuse. "All of the solutions to this point have been very expensive."

Smith, who majored in cognitive science and cultural anthropology at Hopkins, started working on Gado in 2010, when he was still a student. It was serendipity that brought him to the Afro: He was working on an oral history project in East Baltimore and wanted to find old photos.

He visited the Afro, toured its photo archive and met with Moira Hinderer, who was working at the newspaper through a grant to organize its archives. Smith saw a way for a little robot to do much of the tedious work that a person would normally do: Pick up a photo, place it on a scanner and save an image to a computer database.

Gado largely automates the process, freeing archival staffers to focus on other tasks.

Now Smith is starting to sell Gado kits over the Internet for $500, meaning that just about anybody — from amateur photographers to large organizations — can afford to scan huge piles of photos. Two kits have been sold so far. The kits don't include a computer or a scanner, but come with a Web camera, robot parts and software that can work with virtually any scanner, camera and computer.

The technology that underpins Gado is called "open source," meaning that it can evolve with the help of technical contributions made by a community of users that Smith hopes will grow around use of the device.

John Gartrell, the archivist at the Afro, said that before Gado came along, he was the newspaper's chief scanner. He said he's glad he doesn't have to do as much scanning anymore.

"I probably have scanned in 5,000 images myself," Gartrell said. Gado has "taken out so many steps."

He said the Afro chose to digitize its World War II photo collection first because it's one of the richest it has. The newspaper had correspondents covering the war overseas, filing stories and sending photos that captured the lives of black soldiers in wartime, Gartrell said.

Gado scans both the front of the photograph as well as the back. History is captured on the backs of pictures, where photographers and photo editors typically wrote descriptions and the names of people and places in the photograph.

The first version of Gado took two minutes to scan and save a photograph, but Gado 2 does it in less than a minute. Smith said he plans to make it even faster in subsequent versions.

To support development of the technology, Smith's company — Ebers Smith and Douglas Associated LLC — has received grants from Hopkins and the Abell Foundation, a nonprofit philanthropic institution in Baltimore. Hopkins gave $13,000 and Abell gave $35,000 toward the project. Smith said.

Smith's company is based in the Emerging Technology Center, a Baltimore technology business incubator, at its East 33rd Street campus.

Smith recently held a successful Kickstarter campaign, which ended Monday, that raised more than $2,900 over the Internet to cover the cost of a person to oversee the robot at the Afro.

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