The Digital Check Story Part II | Published in IDMi Magazine, Summer 2020 Edition | By Brad Kvedaris
January 28, 1986, is a date that will always be remembered as a national tragedy: The explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger and the loss of its seven crewmembers. Amidst the devastating news, none of us at Digital Check had any idea this event would, many years later, exert a major influence on the future of our own company as well. Besides marking a dramatic turning point for the heroic age of space exploration, the disaster had countless ripple effects felt throughout American industry – including an important transition in our own transition from analog to digital manufacturing.
In 1986, the company currently known as Digital Check – which makes microfilm readers and scanners under the names nextScan and ST Imaging – wasn’t called Digital Check at all. In fact,
we were still two independent organizations: Microseal Corporation, which made sleeves for storing microfilm, and Data Conversion, Inc., or DCI, which made the cameras that produced it.
Even before Microseal and DCI merged in 1989, both companies had already been struggling with the hard reality that they were reaching the tail end of the microfilm era. If the world was going digital, what would the 1990s look like? How would we reinvent ourselves?
The fallout from the Challenger disaster would help shape that decision. Our company was still manufacturing microfilm products through the end of the 1980s, but an unlikely chain of events related to that incident saw us land our first contract for an all-digital document scanner in 1991. That product rose from the ruins of a famous high-tech failure – FedEx’s ill-fated Zapmail service. (We’ll get to how the Shuttle accident factored into that in a moment.)
Those of you who remember fax machines might still be surprised to know that the first commercial models became available all the way back in the 1960s. Xerox’s refrigerator-sized LDX model is often considered the original, and its Magnafax “telecopier” the first mass-production, example of same. Through the early 1980s, though, they remained too expensive for most individuals and small businesses; and, even if a business did own one, its recipient list was limited to other businesses that had fax machines. Zapmail, which launched in 1984, was FedEx’s attempt to solve that problem. If it put a fax machine in each of its locations, it could instantly offer a network of fax sending and receiving points that covered the entire world.
The problem was it didn’t really work. Their fax machines, informally known as “Zapmailers,” were top-of-the-line, Japanese-made devices – but the telecommunications infrastructure of the time couldn’t keep up with the data load, especially on cross-country and overseas transmissions. The company tried using its own internal network, but that was also plagued with speed and reliability issues.
To save the Zapmail program, FedEx planned to launch a communications satellite, but the Challenger disaster put a halt to those plans. By the time the Space Shuttle fleet resumed flying almost three years later, Zapmail had long ago been discontinued. (That probably worked out for the best, as far as FedEx’s bottom line was concerned, since inexpensive off-the-shelf fax machines had begun popping up everywhere by then.)
The end of Zapmail is what provided the kickstart for our company to enter the digital era. After shuttering the service, FedEx sold off the equipment to electronics salvagers, who slowly “parted it out” over the subsequent years. The very last useful components of the Zapmailers, the image-capture mechanisms themselves, found their way to us in 1991, and we repurposed them into high-speed document scanners. Those devices, capable of capturing an unheard-of (for the time) 30 pages per minute, were sold for nearly a decade under VisionShape, Inc.’s VS series label.
That foray into digital scanning would have a permanent impact on our company: In 1993, we signed a deal with an Italian firm to assemble and distribute another digital imaging device, the BUIC 1000 check scanner. Little did we know at the time, that would become our company’s primary source of business for almost the next thirty years!
Things were going so well in the digital space that we did what would have been unthinkable a few years before: We sold our entire analog microfilm division, along with the Microseal name, to Bell & Howell in 1994. For the first time since our founding in the 1950s, we were out of the microfilm business. Reflecting our new focus, the company’s name was changed to Digital Check the following year.
Our next few years saw a continued foray into check processing, but with a twist: We ended up working with microfilm again almost immediately. One of our first projects after the sale of Microseal was a collaboration with Bell & Howell, on a rotary camera that could capture paper checks onto microfilm. (Back then, instead of keeping digital archives, banks were required to hold on to either the original paper documents or microfilm copies – and film was the far less cumbersome and more easily organized choice.) In total, our exit from the microfilm business lasted less than a year.
It’s worth mentioning that, while our digital check scanners were winning awards for capturing 20 images per minute – a considerable achievement at the time – the analog Bell & Howell camera could reach speeds of 500 documents per minute and up. But while that device represented an impressive display of engineering, it was clear that analog technology could not go much further without a bridge to electronic platforms. No matter how fast the device (and some were even faster than ours!), its usefulness would continue diminishing if physical media was the only output.
In 1999, Digital Check made its re-entry into the microfilm space official with the purchase of a company called S-T Imaging (STI), based out of Mount Prospect, Illinois. This time, there was a different plan in mind: Updating traditional analog film reading for use with modern PC platforms.
Prior to the acquisition, STI had produced an array of traditional microfilm readers – the backlit analog projectors that were the standard in schools and libraries since the early 1900s. We quickly put a new spin on this nearly century-old technology, replacing the lights and mirrors with a digital camera, and the backlit display with a computer monitor. While this accomplished essentially the same end goal – displaying the contents of microfilm or fiche on a screen – switching from a dumb terminal to a PC-cased platform was a huge leap forward technologically.
The digital reader represented an important step for microfilm, in terms of both compatibility and ease of use. However, we had just begun to scratch the surface of what the digital age meant for the future of film. As we’ll see in the next issue, the technology might have been brought up to date, but the biggest task – preserving the trillions of documents recorded in physical archives – was just beginning.