Mike B. Toth tends to attract attention wherever he goes. That happens when you’re 6 feet 8. Bedouins nicknamed the Oakton resident Taweel, the Egyptian word for “tall.” “The kids and the adults would say, ‘Taweel, Taweel!’” laughs Toth. “I do stand out in a crowd.”
But Toth is a dashing character for other reasons. A cultural-heritage researcher, he’s a kind of real-life Indiana Jones crossed with Robert Langdon of The Da Vinci Code (one of his next projects actually involves a painting by that master). The reason Toth is in such demand among historians, librarians, and cultural specialists: He spent years developing advanced imaging technology to photograph delicate manuscripts in extreme detail, so much so that it’s been described as “Photoshop on steroids.” These photographs are enhanced with ultraviolet and multispectral lights hued in green, red, blue, and infrared, allowing the human eye to detect previously unseen residues, undertext, and handprints. Then, in collaboration with scientists and scholars, the images are uploaded to the internet and shared with the world.
Take the Gettysburg Address. For years, the Nicolay copy of the address—so named for John G. Nicolay, Abraham Lincoln’s personal secretary, who accompanied the president on the trip—was stored at the Library of Congress for safekeeping and only reviewed by academics doing research. Then the Library hired Toth to take a deeper dive into the document’s history and display it on their website for all to discover.
Toth describes photographing the delicate Gettysburg Address with wonder in his voice, “It is in beautiful handwriting, and down below the words, ‘Shall not perish from the earth,’ I see a glow, like a diamond. I look on the screen, and there’s a thumbprint and three fingerprints on the back. The paper had been folded into quarters, as if it was in a coat pocket on the way to a cemetery in Pennsylvania. It took the nonvisible wavelengths of light to see these fingerprints. Whether it’s Lincoln’s prints we don’t know, but that was pretty amazing to find.”
Toth works with conservators at prestigious institutions around the world. “I have to pinch myself when I’m working with one of the oldest copies of the New Testament, a Michelangelo sketch, or the Declaration of Independence written in Thomas Jefferson’s hand,” Toth says. “There are no barriers or glass between—it’s just you and that object.”
Before the pandemic began, Toth clocked 1,000 miles each year, squeezing into tight airplane seats and lugging 55 pounds of fragile equipment everywhere he went. While working in St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, Toth photographed a 1,000-year-old Syriac Galen Palimpsest (that is, a manuscript that was erased to make room for later writing). At the time, Egypt was roiled in kidnappings, bus bombings, and three revolutions, but it was Indiana Jones who said, “To be a good archaeologist, you gotta get out of the library!”
Toth attributes his sense of adventure to growing up in Central Florida, where he and his siblings learned to water-ski, scuba dive, and sail under the tutelage of their father, Robert Toth, an aerospace engineer, and mother, Joan Sweiger Toth, an artist. Toth enjoyed tinkering with tools and was a voracious reader, especially of books about Tom Swift, the boy scientist.
A highlight of Toth’s childhood was watching rocket launches at nearby Cape Canaveral. His father managed all parts and materials on the Redstone, Jupiter, and Mercury rockets, and took his kids to see every Apollo blastoff. “Aerospace was a big part of our lives growing up; it was a significant influence,” says Toth. After graduation from Wake Forest University, Toth joined the Foreign Broadcast Information Service and was stationed overseas monitoring foreign broadcasts and supervising teams of translators.
While living in Bangkok, Toth flew to Vienna, Virginia, to court his future wife, Lucretia Coffee. After their marriage, the couple lived in Thailand, Swaziland (now known as Eswatini), and Australia, where Toth became the scientific adviser to the defense attaché. Eventually, the couple returned to Northern Virginia, where Toth served as national policy director for the National Reconnaissance Office.
Toth says the most exciting thing he has ever done was serve as payload communications manager for a 1989 launch of the space shuttle Discovery—two years after the space shuttle Challenger exploded during liftoff. Asked about supervising from the control room, Toth downplays his nerves of steel, allowing that “it was exciting.” The mission was particularly meaningful because three decades before, his father had worked on a smaller version of a human launch vehicle, the Redstone rockets. Twenty years before, Toth had watched Apollo 8 blast off from the same launchpad as Discovery. In serendipitous symmetry, now Discovery and his father’s Redstone rocket are parked in the same hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly.
In 2000, Toth read about a private collector who lent a prayer book to The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. The manuscript, transcribed on parchment during the 10th century, contained undertext from the sixth century, appearing to be the earliest surviving manuscript on the works of Archimedes. The Greek mathematician and physicist lived from 287 to 212 B.C. and was the first to describe the volume of a sphere and an approximation of pi. Oh, yes, and legend has it he cried “Eureka!” upon discovering his famous principle having to do with buoyancy.
Toth volunteered to manage the project, and through multispectral imaging, researchers could finally decipher the original text of the Archimedes Palimpsest. “I had experience in advanced imaging systems. I loved history, and I love culture heritage,” says Toth. “This was something new because no one had done this before on a complete manuscript.” It also was the perfect time—when digital cameras were first introduced and the internet provided a way to share those images.
After the Archimedes project, Toth was hooked. He retired from government and embarked on his new career. “It was a new adventure, and I love adventure,” he says with a laugh. His skills were in demand, and institutions hired him to scan objects across the globe.
Doug Emery, who leads the cultural heritage computing group for the University of Pennsylvania libraries, is a regular collaborator. “Mike is as generous as he is brilliant,” says Emery. “Our work on the Archimedes Palimpsest has been influential in how grants [to libraries] are funded and how cultural-heritage data is released.” Emery adds that while the photographs are important, managing those images is equally critical, “Mike believed you had to do it rigorously and according to standards. Mike lives in the future, he knows what’s coming, and he knows what you need to think about.
“He’s also a great drinking buddy.” The two make a point of finding the best pubs whenever they travel together.
Dressed in his customary white button-down, Toth gains access to places visitors rarely see: “In St. Catherine’s Monastery, Father Justin took us to see a sixth-century knave. At the Vatican, we took a private tour of the non-public areas.” Lucretia Toth accompanies her husband when her busy practice as a real-estate agent allows. “Michael and I have really appreciated experiencing local places, meals, and drinks with the camaraderie of friends and associates,” she said in an email. “It’s always a great adventure when I am able to accompany him on his travels.”
What continues to surprise Toth is how the oldest bureaucracies in the world have given permission to share the data, especially considering their fear about damage and the theft of ancient manuscripts. “What we are trying to do is democratize our history,” says Toth. “Make it available to everyone around the globe. Not just scientists and scholars, but students, teachers, retirees, people stuck at home, anyone, anywhere, anytime. To give them the ability to access these data and look at these images on their own computer.” And if the data is ever corrupted by a virus or a server goes down, there are backups.
Last December, Toth started a new project at the City of Fairfax’s Historic Blenheim. The 19th-century farmhouse contains graffiti scrawled on walls by Union soldiers during the Civil War. Through a grant from the National Park Service, Toth used multispectral imaging to find hidden words and drawings. His photos revealed the impact of environmental damage and will help conservators protect the home so future generations can study it. Toth says he hopes to partner with the park service to digitize graffiti in buildings that housed enslaved people. “Maybe our technology can help that type of research,” he says.
Toth has digitized a book owned by Alexander Hamilton and sacramental journals damaged by Hurricane Katrina at Holy Trinity Church in New Orleans. Next up: determining the provenance of a da Vinci painting and examining the link between metal type in a Gutenberg Bible and Korean printed text.
But beyond institutions and museums, Toth is hired by families seeking investigation and preservation of their precious family heirlooms. “It used to be you locked your books in a library because you didn’t want them stolen,” Toth says. “Now, we are making sure the data is available for future generations.”