Microfiche/ Magicfiche

Last week I spent some time in the library here in Christchurch, playing with a microfiche machine. I had never actually seen one of these in action before, except for on TV dramas featuring historic cold case murders, so learning how to spool the film and watching it magnify onto the screen was quite exciting. One minute the information was all curled up in a tight snail-shape, the next it was in an accessible format on the screen, ready to be saved as a PDF onto my memory stick for future mac-screen reading at my leisure. The juxtaposition between old and new was most striking.

It was the old that provided the impetus for my library trip. I was heading back in time, to 1909 to be exact. The Lyttelton Times carried several in depth reports about Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod Expedition, thanks to the close relationship between the explorer and one Edward Saunders, journalist and ghost-writer extraordinaire. Unbeknownst to most, the New Zealander Saunders was employed by Shackleton to write both Heart of the Antarctic and South. Shackelton, with the gift of the gab, dictated his stories during the voyage back to England, and Saunders curated them with his literary hand. In fact, Saunders had such an input into the creation of the books that Shackleton wanted his name to appear on the cover alongside his own, but the journalist refused, preferring to remain in the background (Ellis, 44).

For Saunders, the feats of the explorer were the important part. Looking back on history through the lens of my thesis, I would argue that the story was just as important – if not more so when it came to funding. It was vital for early Antarctic explorers to be able to sell their stories, via newspaper contracts, book deals and lecture circuits, in order to raise the money that made their expeditions possible. Shackleton is a prime example of this. Prior to his departure on the Nimrod and Endurance expeditions he sold newspaper rights to The Daily Mail (1909) and The British Daily Chronicle (1914), securing funding in advance. Upon his return to England in 1916, deeply in debt, Shackleton had to sign over the rights to his second book South to his creditors – specifically, to Sir Robert Lucas Tooth (see Barczewski, 197) – as the rights were his last remaining asset (Shackleton 2007 xx). It was vital that the book sold well in order to recoup the costs – which, incidentally, it did.

Saunders’ original articles on the Nimrod expedition also helped the Lyttelton Times sell copies: interest in the polar story is demonstrated by the carefully placed advert for a local clothing store. Spread across four columns, the advert touts the virtue of polar furs, having drawn the audience’s attention with a lavishly drawn ‘Farthest South’ title, complete with penguins. This gem was an unexpected side discovery, made possible by the wonders of microfiche. In fact, I’d say magicfiche would be a better name. Now that I’ve got my driver’s licence to the past, I think out paths may cross more often…


Barczewski, Stephanie. Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton and the changing face of Heroism. London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007.

Ellis, Jane. Shackleton’s Connections with Canterbury, 1901-1917. PCAS 15, University of Canterbury, 2013.

Ernest, Shackleton. The Heart of the Antarctic and South. Introduction by Beau Riffenburgh. Wordsworth, 2007.

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