‘If you could replicate Mr Benn's fancy dress shop on the internet, that website would be a lot like RETRONAUT’


1949: Piccadilly Circus, London (Chalmers Butterfield)


Retronaut’s history

Wolfgang Wild

I started Retronaut because I couldn't build a time-machine. 

As a child, the idea of the past, of different versions of 'now', captivated me.  I was especially spellbound by the opening sequence of the BBC children's programme 'Bagpuss', in which the eponymous cloth cat was able to collapse time, transforming the sepia of the Edwardian world into a bright and colorful now.  

For me, the past seemed as exotic and enticing as another country, but one which I could never visit. Even in my earliest years, I felt a strange, almost uncanny, sense of loss, not only for my own past but for pasts I had never known. This feeling, and fascination, remained with me as I grew older, and I began to notice that certain old photographs had an interesting effect on me.  

Most old photographs 'fit' the internal map of the past that we carry around in our minds - a map made up of our memories and images we have seen.   But some photographs do not. Some pictures seem anachronistic, as though they cannot belong to the time from which they originate. As an example of this, many of us imagine the past in black and white - so when we see a colour photograph from the, 1940s - like the one on the left - 0r the 1920s, or even earlier - it doesn't fit on our map. 

When I saw such pictures, my mind did a kind of "double-take" - as though it wasn't quite sure what time it was seeing, or even what time it was in. The pictures had the power to collapse my mental map of time, changing 'the past' into 'another now'.  And this 'double-take', a sort of temporal dislocation - this felt, to me, like time-travel. 



‘It was the sign advertising Brylcreem that got me. It can be seen in one of Chalmers Butterfield's colour photographs of Piccadilly Circus in 1949. Why did it move me? This is the joy of retronauting’

- Jonathan Jones


1949: Picadilly Circus, London (Chalmers Butterfield)


Over the years, I mentally stored away these pictures, and I started to hunt for them too, in old bookshops, in books in charity shops, and later online. One day, at the end of 2009, I was showing my collection on my computer to a friend in a cafe in Royal Oak, London.  "You know, you should start a blog" he said. 

I had no experience online at the time, and I googled where to start. The general advice seemed to be that 'How to...' type blogs worked well - how to look after your lawn, how to groom your dog, etc. I decided my blog would be about how to go back in time when you don't have a time-machine. Which was too wordy. I needed a name, but not just 'time-traveller' - I didn't want to visit the future. What is the noun for a 'backwards time-traveller'? Well, I reasoned, if an 'astronaut' goes into space, maybe a 'retronaut' goes back in time.  I called the blog 'How to be a Retronaut'.

I launched it - if you can call it that - at the beginning of January 2010. I had no visitors at all - but I found it enormously rewarding to be able to take a picture and display it online. A very basic form of curation, but for me, deeply satisfying. 

Then, three weeks after I started Retronaut, on January 28th, 2010, the site got 30,000 hits in one day.  One of the posts - the London Kodachromes by Chalmers Butterfield - had been picked up by Reddit and had gone viral. Retronaut grew from there.


Over the next four years, with the help of my friends Amanda Uren and Simon Mallindine, I posted around 40,000 Retronautic photographs onto the site in 'capsules' - small collections, each chosen to disrupt the viewers sense of the past. The capsules would routinely go viral, and it began to occur to me that there must be a reason for this.  

I decided to try to figure out what this reason was, and to see whether it was possible to codify my approach so that it could be applied to any collection of archive photographs. I wanted to reduce it down as much as possible to a simple formula. The result was  S.P.E.E.D.  Using the five letters of the formula, I could look at any old photograph and accurately predict whether it would engage with an audience.  The higher a photograph's S.P.E.E.D. score, the more likely it would be a viral hit. 


During 2013 and 2014, Retronaut was guest curator at Europeana, the European Digital Museum, Library and Archive. Using the S.P.E.E.D. formula, I showcased daily capsules of Europeana content, with interesting results.  Europeana and I wrote a report about it, 'Disrupting History', which you can download here.

I was guest curator  also at Northumberland Museums and Archives, culminating in a six-month physical exhibition at Woodhorn Museum of around 25 pictures from the Northumberland Archives. The Retronaut Woodhorn project was shortlisted for the Museums and Heritage Awards for Excellence 2015.  You can download Woodhorn's report on the project here.

- Wolfgang