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The Polish Polymath Who Came Up With Television For Opera – In 1878

February 10th, 2017


Julian OchorowiczHis name was Julijan Ochorowicz (though his first name was also spelled Julian or even Julien), and he was, among other things, a scientist, engineer, mathematician, inventor (credited with the first hands-free telephone), economist, linguist, Egyptologist, philosopher, poet, teacher, paranormal-phenomena investigator, and pioneer of experimental and clinical psychology.  His first thesis was on the history of human brain sizes; his second, earning him a doctorate from Leipzig University, was on conditions of consciousness. In 1877, he published a paper on respiration in the journal Kosmos. On February 10, 1878, in the same journal, he submitted a very different paper, which was soon published.  It was called (translated, with assistance from Google and native speakers, from the original 19th-century Polish), “On the possible construction of a device for transmitting optical images at any distance.” The rationale for the device? Delivering the visual element of opera.

Ochorowicz’s paper was not the first published about what we today call television and not even the first invoking television for opera. Even Ochorowicz reportedly worked on television in 1877; I’m awaiting the availability of some research material about that.

As for the earliest publication on what we today call television (and its use for opera), on March 30, 1877, the newspaper The Sun in New York City carried a letter from someone using the pen name “Electrician” about the wonders of a television-like device called the “electroscope.” Part of the letter had this: “Both telephone and electroscope applied on a large scale would render it possible to represent at one time on a hundred stages in various parts of the world the opera… sung… in any given theatre.” That’s a reasonable description of today’s global transmissions of live opera to cinemas and other auditoriums.

1877 New York Sun opera TV

“Electrician” cited opera, however, as just one possible application of the “electroscope” and never claimed to be its inventor; he or she attributed it to “an eminent scientist of this city” who was “on the point of publishing….” The letter nevertheless gave an explanation of the technology involved, comprising argle-bargle about the cameras being “boxes, or rooms, according to the size required” with “quasi electric wires of a peculiar make and consistency” and the displays “being constantly kept filled with a newly discovered gas, a sort of magnetic-electric ether, in which the currents of light or color become resplendent again….”

Adelina_Patti_1863In contrast, Ochorowicz, who was clearly aware of the latest technological developments, presented only opera as the reason to invent what he called a “telephotoscope” (“telefotoskop” in the original Polish). The same year that Thomas Edison indicated that the main purpose of the phonograph was dictation, Ochorowicz wrote that both the telephone and the phonograph offered the delightful possibility of hearing performances by opera diva Adelina Patti at home.

Here’s my attempted (assisted by Google and native Polish speakers) translation of what Ochorowicz wrote next. “What a pleasure to me that sitting in Lwów I could listen to Italian opera in Paris, but I would see neither performers nor sets nor impressions on the faces of the audience nor costumes — in a word, nothing!

“That cannot be.  After telephony and recording, we need to invent the telephotoscope.”

Artificial EyeOchorowicz went on to analyze the technology needed (click images to enlarge).  First, “Find a way to convert variations in light intensity into an electrical signal.” He reported on the latest work in this area, including the selenium-based “artificial eye” recently demonstrated by William Siemens.

PantelegraphSecond, find a way to get the signal into a single wire. “Electrician” proposed only twisting “many thousands of wires” into a cable; “On entering the receiver the cable is untwisted….” Ochorowicz instead turned to the image scanning already in use in “Caselli’s Pantelegraph,” a still-image fax-like transmission system that went into commercial service in France in 1865 and that opera-composer Gioachino Rossini had used to transmit sheet music over long distances starting on January 22, 1860.

Sutton NYPLLast, Ochorowicz tackled the problem of converting the electrical signal back to light. It’s a little difficult for me to tell from the 19th-century Polish (Google Translate has a hard time, too), but it appears that Ochorowicz might have been referring to a polarization-rotation light valve based on the recently discovered Kerr effect. “And here at once the eyes of the viewer will be released within the Paris Opera House,” and, with the addition of appropriate projection lenses, the image “can be enlarged for the whole audience in a theater.”

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Breaking the Pictures Barrier: Why Television Research Began in 1877 (and why no one knows it)

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  Why Television Research Began in 1877 (and Why No One Knows It) Recorded January 12, 2017 at the SMPTE Philadelphia Section meeting, QVC, West Chester, PA. Prior to 1877, there was no hint of a television camera — not even in science fiction or fantasy. In 1877, eight people, in five countries on both […]

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January 9th, 2017

  On Saturday night, 2017 January 7, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences bestowed Technology and Engineering Emmy Awards on Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (the IET), and Siemens for “The Concept of Opto-Electronic Transduction,” a fundamental principle of television cameras: the ability to convert variations in light intensity […]

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Recorded on November 4, 2016 as a National Opera Week event at All Mobile Video Chelsea Studios, 221 West 26th Street, New York, NY 10001. Did you think television was introduced at the New York World’s Fair in 1939? The BBC telecast the opera Carmen in 1934, and the first television program with an original […]

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Pittsburgh, SMPTE, & Before by Mark Schubin

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This is SMPTE’s centennial year. Did you know the society might not exist if not for Pittsburgh? The same might also be said for the whole motion-image industry! Carnegie Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, Westinghouse, PPG, and even Heinz played roles. Join multiple Emmy-award-winning SMPTE Life Fellow Mark Schubin as he provides a Pittsburgh-oriented illustrated […]

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Call for Proposals for Presentations at the 2017 HPA Tech Retreat

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HDR: The Bottom Line by Mark Schubin

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This is a modified version of the original presentation given at the 2016 HPA Tech Retreat on February 18, 2016. High Dynamic Range (HDR) imagery offers the most bang for the bit in viewing tests.  Equipment is available, and issues are being worked out.  What happens in theaters and homes, however, is a different matter. […]

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The Technology Year in Review by Mark Schubin

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This is a modified version of the original presentation given at the 2016 HPA Tech Retreat on February 17, 2016. What were some of the hot technologies of 2015?  Could they have been books, film, and television?  And might the greatest advance in television be something first written up in 1877? Correction: The Polaroid Snap […]

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Great Scots!

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  With the Olympic Games opening in Brazil this week, it might be worth noting that the first to feature television cameras took place in Germany 80 years ago. But those weren’t the first sports events with television coverage. Baseball was televised in Japan in 1931; before that, tennis was captured by a video camera […]

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Wow or Woe?

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Today, July 24, 2016. as this image from page 13 of the July 25, 1916 issue of The Evening Star in Washington, D.C. indicates, is the 100th anniversary of the first meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, the group that became SMPTE in 1950 when a T for television was added. The article noted that, […]

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Truth Will Out

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  A Capitol Fourth is one of the longest-lasting shows on PBS and is said to be the highest rated. It’s an extraordinary undertaking, with stars from virtually every genre of music performing live both in front of a huge crowd on the west lawn and steps of the U.S. Capitol building and, simultaneously, on TV […]

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