Seventeen years ago, I was scrolling through an old newspaper on microfilm in the Stephen H. Hart Library when I came across a headline, “New Use Found for Cats.” The article went on to describe a machine developed to capture and sell static electricity from cat fur. The inventor’s vision was a warehouse in which feral cats continuously ran through a network of tubes, thus creating friction and an electric charge. It was also heralded as a solution to the city’s “cat problem.” The article was horrifying and fascinating at the same time. I had other opportunities to interact with the collection that ended in more positive discoveries. For example, I remember looking through the manuscript collection of Ellis Meredith, a Colorado suffragist, and the feeling of awe in holding an actual letter from Susan B. Anthony in my hands. The experience started me on a career path in which I could work with primary sources, culminating in my current position of Serials Manager for History Colorado. I now manage the largest collection of Colorado newspapers in the world.
Over the years, I have often wondered if the cat article was real or if it had been meant as a joke. Satirical newspapers and fake news pieces have been around for a long time. For a concise and entertaining history, see an article by Columbia University’s adjunct professor Robert Love titled Before Jon Stewart. My investigation into the cat article is timely, as I just had the privilege of reading some of my favorite Colorado fake news published annually around April Fool’s Day: the “Herefano Whirled Gerbil” AKA Huerfano World Journal and “The Mountin’ Crackpot” AKA The Mountain Jackpot (out of Woodland Park). Regardless of the accuracy of every piece of information contained therein, these local newspapers present a snapshot of life within our Colorado communities. When one follows a given newspaper daily, or weekly, etc., the snapshot becomes a large moving image. It is not surprising that our collection of newspapers on microfilm is one of the most heavily used collections in the Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center.
People are often surprised when they learn that History Colorado still microfilms newspapers. In fact, the newspaper collection includes about 50,000 reels and growing. Microfilm is considered old technology, and it is relatively old compared to computers, but it is also proven as a long-term preservation format that only needs a light and a strong magnifying glass to decipher. In contrast, digital files rely on hardware and software that may become obsolete. Digital has the strong advantage, however, when it comes to searchability. Especially, for example, if one does not remember anything about the source of an appalling and compelling cat article – not the newspaper title, town of publication, or date. Anyone who has browsed through reels and reels of microfilm can understand how daunting it was to even consider looking for the article again.
Fortunately, there is a website with over 600,000 digitized pages of Colorado newspapers, the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection. The CHNC is a collaboration between the Colorado State Library, which manages the site and content, History Colorado, which provides microfilm reels for digitization, and the Colorado State Archives. With one keyword search, I was able to find similar articles that seem to suggest that cat electricity generation was either a real idea or a recurring joke. An article from the Boulder Daily Camera on August 12, 1891 is titled “A Feline Motor” and subtitled “Cats Utilized to Furnish Electricity for Illuminating and Other Purposes – Steam Engines Nowhere.” Another article from the Aspen Daily Chronicle on March 21, 1891 describes “A Feline Battery” in use at the Midland depot that is “stronger than the usual battery jars commonly in use at telegraph offices, and the current is turned on when their [cats] tails are connected.” It is such an outlandish idea that I suspect it is a hoax, and in fact, “the early days of American journalism, newspapers trafficked in intentional, entertaining hoaxes …” as author Robert Love explains.
A newspaper is, metaphorically, the eyes, voice, and spirit of a community. My goal as Serials Manager is to create a collection that combines a preservation format such as microfilm and a digital format for easy access, and this is the goal that the Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection helps us achieve. For those newspapers that History Colorado cannot film for lack of funds, we are also exploring a digital collection that would capture current newspaper content in digital form and preserve those files in a format and location that is least likely to be rendered obsolete in the future. Neither the State Library nor History Colorado have funding available to create a “born digital” newspaper collection or to add content to the CHNC site, but we are fortunate that many libraries, historical societies, and newspaper publishers are willing to help us preserve this history. For example, the Eagle Valley Library District recently provided funds to make two 10th Mountain Division newspapers, The Ski-Zette and Blizzard, available free to the public. And because new content is always being added to the CHNC website, I am going to keep searching for that original cat article, and someday I expect to find it.
Kerry Baldwin, Serials Manager
Photo: Boulder Daily Camera, 12 August 1891, p.3
Contact the Library
Stephen H. Hart Library and Research Center
History Colorado Center
Denver, CO 80203