The Addendum

On Retronaut

Mashable calls itself “a leading source for news, information and resources for the Connected Generation. Mashable reports on the importance of digital innovation and how it empowers and inspires people around the world.” (Mashable web site, footer, retrieved January 24, 2015 from ). It’s not the sort of place you would expect to find historical materials. Yet it is also home to a feature called “Retronaut,” curated by Mashable employee Chris Wild.

According to Chris Wild’s Wikipedia page:

Chris Wild is the creator of the website Retronaut, an online archive of historic pictures. In its article on Retronaut, Fast Company wrote: “the images on Retronaut are chosen to make the viewer feel like they’re looking not at the past, but rather at a different version of the present”[1]

In July 2010, Wild was a speaker at the TEDGlobal conference.[2]

In November 2013, Retronaut was listed by The Times as one of “The 50 people you should follow on Twitter”.[3]

In December 2013, Wild was appointed Guest Curator of Woodhorn Museum and Northumberland Archives, England.[4]

The book “Retronaut: A Photographic Time Machine” was published by National Geographic in September 2014.[5] The book received a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly, saying “With every page comes a surprise; this terrific collection never ceases to entertain”.[6] The Daily Mail described it as “A magical tour of the past”.[7]

In August 2014, Mashable announced that Chris had joined Mashable’s editorial team and that from September 2014, Mashable would be the exclusive home of the Retronaut brand of historical photo curation.

Retrieved January 24, 2015 from

The photographs Retronaut uses are often taken from other archives, for example, the Library of Congress collections. Retronaut sometimes favors truly historic material—the kind of stuff that seems faded, stained, torn, rough, showing the patina of age. This is especially true of the monochromatic materials. With color images, however, the preference is for those that appear as if taken yesterday, even if they were taken a hundred years ago. It’s a kind of temporal jamming. For example, consider a recent post of the color photography—yes, color photography—of pre Great War Russian photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (1863–1944) (Retrieved January 24, 2015 from


Like Shorpy ( Retronaut uses photography as an attempt to gain access to a different time, but unlike Shorpy, it often approaches the matter by trying to reduce the sense of temporal distance, rather than by trying to convey detailed information. (Shorpy takes a different approach showing images in radically large resolution, so that people looking at them can dig into the background for details.)

What is more interesting, however, is the way that Retronaut frames the whole matter in its own title. This is retro, not history, not the past. According to the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of “retro’s” second case of use, (accessed January 24, 2015), retro’s etymology is:

“Probably < French rétro (adjective) that imitates or evokes a style from the relatively recent past (1974 or earlier), (noun) fashion or style of this type, person who adopts such a fashion or style (1974), shortened < rétrospectif”

It is “backwards looking,” and, more critically, “nostalgic.”

The oldest use of “retro,” according to the OED’s third case, is 1634. It is a classical Latin term, often legal, now rarely uses stand-alone, and is defined as “backwards; into the past. Also (now usually): retrospectively, with retrospective effect.” This in turn comes from “re,” a Latin prefix meaning “back or backwards,” and ‘”-tro”, a Latin adverb suffix that converts the back or backwards quality into a modification or description of an act (See OED entries for “retro-prefix” and “re- prefix.”)

As for the suffix of “-naut,” this clearly implies some form of navigation, as in nautical. Again according to the OED, (see entry “-naut suffix”,) comes from the ancient Greek for a sailor, and is often “used to form a number of words with the sense ‘voyager, traveller’, with the first element defining the nature of the travel or experience.” Retronaut offers, in its purest sense, a voyage backward, implied to me temporally backward.

Yet words change from their original sense, and it is difficult not to see the word “retronaut” in light of some of those other “travelers” that the OED identifies, especially the idea of the “Astronaut.” In this feature, the past—framed by Mashable alongside contemporary stories about, say, social media and digital-human frontiers—and becomes a territory akin to Space, a frontier of the unknown that can be explored. Retronaut makes the past a foreign country, but more so it is an entirely different element, in the way that Space is an entirely different element than the Earth’s atmosphere, or the land, or the sea. It is an othering of the past, a making of it into an exotic Terra Incognita, a world without comprehension rather than a world that was once someone’s yesterday, and in the cosmic scheme of things, still is ours.

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