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When Did We Come From?
December 5th, 2010 Posted in Schubin Cafe by Mark Schubin | Print This Post Print This Post

NPR’s On the Media has been my favorite news show. They explain the how and why of media issues, debunk myths, and correct errors — even their own. When it comes to media technology, however — especially its history — they sometimes get things wrong and don’t correct the errors. Examples of those uncorrected errors may be found in a segment of their August 13 show. It was called “Does Science Fiction Predict the Future of Journalism?” http://www.onthemedia.org/transcripts/2010/08/13/06

Much of the segment was amazing and true. Consider this question: Who invented the 24-hour media news cycle? The common answer is CNN.  They began transmitting 24-hour news in 1980. Even the Internet’s World-Wide Web is younger. But who says news has to come via computer or TV? All-news radio in the U.S. is about two decades older than CNN.

How about something even older? Well, there was Le Grand Pan. It provided news 24 hours a day on a subscription basis (though some attempted to use it without paying for the privilege). It was born in 1846.

1846 Le Grand Pan trimmed

As can be seen in the image above, Le Grand Pan was a newspaper — a continuous newspaper — or, actually, just the idea of a continuous newspaper. It appeared in Émile Souvestre’s book “Le monde tel qu’il sera. Wesleyan University Press brought out the first English translation, “The World as It Shall Be,” in 2004.

The idea was that, riding on rollers, the newspaper would run through the city visiting subscribers, a belt conveying continuous news. Symbols would help readers quickly identify articles in which they were interested. Non-payers would run alongside the belt.

Souvestre was a speculative-fiction writer, and, even if Le Grand Pan doesn’t seem particularly predictive, other aspects of the novel are. There’s a hilarious scene, for example, in which someone gets a glass of water. It involves a several-hundred-page water menu and an itemized bill charging separately for the water and its glass, and it seems as though it might have come from a humor column in this week’s issue of The New Yorker.

The continuous newspaper dreamt up in 1846 is an example of the accurate information in On the Media’s story. Unfortunately, the segment soon veered into the realm of error. After the guest mentioned “news on television and interactivity,” the interviewer said, “We should stipulate this is fully 100 years before television.” And the guest replied, “Exactly, right. And the illustrations in the novel show people looking at a screen in their homes.”

robida TV prediction

Sure enough, above is one of those views of people watching TV at home. The caption may be translated as “The Television News.” But there’s a problem.

The image above did not appear in any edition of Souvestre’s book. In fact, there is no mention, illustration, or other hint of anything even remotely like television in the 1846 book. The interviewer’s next question — after the remarks about television – introduced the artist of the drawing above and the author of the book in which it appeared: ”Albert Robida wrote ‘The Twentieth Century’ in 1887. What was his vision?”

In fact, that book was first published in French as Le Vingtième Siècle in 1882, but that’s a minor point. The major point is that 1882 (let alone 1887) is in no way “fully 100 years before television.” Even the 1846 date isn’t.

1939 Worlds Fair TV-resized-600

U.S. commercial television broadcasters were licensed in 1941. That followed the standards of the first National Television System Committee (NTSC) and RCA’s big TV introduction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, shown above. And the BBC had been broadcasting all-electronic pictures in what was then called “high-definition television” since 1936.

Television news, however, had been around considerably longer. Kolin Hager, general manager of what is today called WRGB, began regularly scheduled television newscasts on that station on May 10, 1928 http://www.cbs6albany.com/sections/wrgb/history/. That’s just 46 years after the first edition of Robida’s book, nowhere near “fully 100 years.”  And that’s not the only problem.

Here’s the premise of the On the Media segment, taken from their transcript:

Guest: “I started reading futurists, and then I started reading [LAUGHING] science fiction writers. I decided that the science fiction writers probably were more worth reading than the futurists.”

Interviewer: “Because, as you quote Ben Bova observing in your piece, ‘Futurists could not have predicted the transistor because there wasn’t any science to underlie it back in the early days of the last century.’”

Unfortunately for that point of view, in the field of television there was plenty of science that predated the fiction.

1889 Verne telephotSome believe the earliest prediction of television was made in a story by Jules Verne. The “telephote” appears in the very first paragraph and is described later as a mechanism for the transmission of live images.

There is much dispute about the story. Some say it was written by Jules Verne, others by his son, Michel, and still others by both. In one history, it was originally written by Michel and published in English in The Forum, then modified by Jules and published in French. That could explain why the journalist talking to his wife (left) via phonotelephote is called either Francis Bennett or Fritz Napoleon Smith.

The English title of the story is “In the Year 2889.” In French it is “La journée d’un journaliste américain en 2890.” Given that the action takes place a thousand years in the future, the date on which the story was published was 1889 (or 1890 for the French version), after Robida’s book. So that couldn’t have been the first indication of television.

Verne did write an earlier book, Paris au XXe siècle [Paris in the 20th Century], in which image transmission is mentioned. It was written in 1863 but not published until 1994 because it was rejected by his publisher at the time. And there’s no question that it was written before any currently known scientific work on television.

1861 Caselli_pantelegraph_imageUnfortunately, the image transmission in Paris in the 20th Century isn’t television, it’s fax. And by 1863 multiple fax machines had been demonstrated (a patent had been issued for one in 1843). At right is a fax from around 1861 transmitted via Giovanni Caselli’s pantélégraphe, the first commercially successful fax machine.

Even Le Grand Pan had a real-world technological basis. The continuous rolling newspaper created by Souvestre in 1846 followed closely the announcement of the invention of continuous-roll wood-pulp-based newsprint paper in Canada (by Charles Fenerty) and Germany (by Friedrich Gottlob Keller) in 1844.

As for television, there’s no question that it was described in Robida’s 1882 book. But, as I noted in a previous post, a scientific booklet about the subject had been published in English, French, and Portuguese in 1880 http://schubincafe.com/blog/2010/10/125th-anniversary-of-pay-cable/. And that’s not all. Here’s a letter about television that appeared in the February 7, 1879 issue of  English Mechanic and World of Science (as depicted on André Lange’s superb history-of-television site http://histv2.free.fr/19/redmond.htm):

1879 Redmond

Wesleyan University Press brought out the first English version of Robida’s The Twentieth Century in 2004, with translation, introduction, and critical materials by Philippe Willems and edited by Arthur B. Evans. Here are the first two sentences from the second footnote in Part One, Chapter 5, the chapter that introduces television (as the “telephonoscope”):

“The realism in this description originates from the fact that Robida’s anticipation was not as far-fetched as it may appear today. Long before the appearance of television sets, the concept behind the transmission of images had been developing alongside that of the telegraph and telephone throughout the century.”

In fact, in his paper, “Historical Notes on Television Before 1900,” published in the March 1977 issue of the Society of Motion-Picture and Television Engineers Journal, George Shiers provided bibliographic references for 15 articles about television technology published in scientific and popular-science periodicals prior to Robida’s 1882 book. But was Robida the first science-fiction writer to “predict” television?

In fact, its earliest “prediction” by a science-fiction writer (excluding earlier fantasies involving magic mirrors and the like) was probably by George du Maurier, creator of Svengali and author of The Martian. His version appeared on December 9, 1878, in Punch’s Almanack for 1879, as “Edison’s Telephonoscope.”

1878 Edison_Telephonoscope trimmed

It wasn’t intended as a prediction (it was accompanied by an illustration of “Edison’s Anti-Gravitation Under-Clothing”, which may be seen at the end of this earlier post: http://schubincafe.com/blog/2009/07/the-first-sports-video/). Nevertheless, spoof or not, it clearly shows the transmission of a video image. Was there any science on which to base the fiction?

As a matter of fact, there was. An article on Constantin-Louis Senlecq’s Télectroscope appeared in La science pour tous [Science for All] before du Maurier’s Telephonoscope. The 1880 multi-language booklet about television was based on an article by Adriano de Paiva that appeared in O Instituto in March 1878. An item called Le télectroscope, un appareil pour transmettre à distance les images (The telectroscope, an apparatus for transmitting images at a distance) appeared in the 1877 edition of L’année scientifique et industrielle (The Year in Science & Industry), published by Louis Figuier in 1878.

eyeSiemens10Those 1878 publications were preceded by a letter to the editor of The [New York] Sun, published on March 29, 1877, signed only “Electrician,” describing “the electroscope,” “by means of which objects or persons standing or moving in any part of the world may be instantaneously seen anywhere and by anybody.” Some consider that letter to be, if not science fiction, a hoax, but even it was preceded by a demonstration by Charles William Siemens and his brother Werner of an artificial eye (left) at Britain’s Royal Institution on February 18, 1876, an event written up that year in such eminent publications as Nature and Scientific American as well as others from Russia to New Zealand. And, in one of several reports on Senlecq’s telectroscope, Scientific American reported that it was developed early in 1877 and that its specification “appeared in all the continental and American scientific journals.”

Names like “telectroscope” and “telephonoscope” were used because the word television wouldn’t be coined until 1900. But why was there so much television research taking place in the late 1870s?

There are two reasons. One was the appearance of telephones in 1876. If sounds could be transmitted, why not pictures?

The other was the discovery of what seemed to be the only missing ingredient for live image transmission. Photographic cameras, image scanners, motion picture toys, and electronic communications systems were all in use in the first half of the 19th century. What did not yet seem to exist was some way to convert light into an electrical signal.

Science in Victorian titlesThat missing link was revealed in a message read to the Society of Telegraph Engineers in 1873 by Latimer Clark. It had been written by Willoughby Smith and concerned variations in the electrical resistance of selenium when it is exposed — or not exposed — to light. That revelation of photoconductivity, added to those previous developments, opened the gates to research into television.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Victorian Books project of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University found that the use of the word science in the titles of “the 1,681,161 books that were published in English in the UK in the long nineteenth century, 1789-1914″ peaked in 1874, as shown in their chart (above right) http://victorianbooks.org/words-in-titles-1789-1914/

DSC01912 trimmed

In fairness, though they might have been inspired by scientific developments, science-fiction writers did come up with many remarkably accurate speculations about media technology. In addition to Souvestre’s 24-hour news cycle, Robida came up with, among other things, video voyeurism, distance learning, shopping via video link, the TV-camera-toting war correspondent (above, who gets injured and becomes the news), and even product placement in broadcast scripts.

But no science-fiction writer “predicted” television 100 years before the fact, and none of them wrote of it before scientists and engineers started working on it.

  • tsiglin

    Mark, thanks for the fascinating walk through the science of fiction that became reality.

    In looking for comparisons between today’s web and previous real-time delivery system prior to radio, I came across a fascinating book called The Victorian Internet that showed just how uncanny a resemblance we face between today’s web and yesterday’s optical and electric telegraphs.

    Also talks about the demise of the telegraph, the rise of the telephone and ties nicely to your noted missing link that came through the Society of Telegraph Engineers in the mid- to late-1800s.

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