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

January 24th, 2017 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Schubin Cafe, Today's Special


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 sides of the Atlantic, began working on television systems, and there has not been a year since without television research (though the word “television,” itself, wasn’t coined until 1900). Why the “pictures barrier” between 1876 and 1877? How did it get broken? Why don’t television history books discuss it? After extensive research, Mark Schubin thinks he knows the answers.

Download Link:  Breaking the Pictures Barrier: Why Television Research Began in 1877 (and why no one knows it) (TRT: 44:33/ 86 MB)

Since delivering this talk, Mark Schubin has discovered another member of “the class of 1877” (slide 43), Julijan Ochorowicz of Poland, who also referenced the Siemens artificial eye (slide 87). An expanded and updated set of slides (from the presentation to the SMPTE New York section on January 24) is available here.

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Great Scots!

August 3rd, 2016 | 3 Comments | Posted in Schubin Cafe


FernsehkanonenWith 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 in the U.S. The U.S. was also home to the first scheduled television newscasts, but the idea of them was first published in France. The first book about television technology was published in Portugal. The first scanned electronic video display was invented in Russia. What television historian George Shiers called “a feasible system” first appeared in Australia. The earliest video image (crude though it was) was created in Ireland. A key principle of video cameras came from Hungary. Inventors in Argentina and South Africa received early television patents.

Television was clearly a global development. But, if the most-important contributions are considered, the country that stands out is none of those in the previous paragraph. It’s Scotland.

Big Bain patentThis year, the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences awarded a Technology & Engineering Emmy to Scottish inventor Alexander Bain. He did not accept in person; he died in 1877. BBC Television ran three stories on the award, one about the arrival of the statuette at the site of his grave, Kirkintilloch, Scotland. In 1842 Bain came up with the concept of scanning for image transmission and received a patent on it the following year. It included pixels, horizontal scanning lines, frames (his pixels were physically in a constructed frame), line synchronization, and frame synchronization. No one had previously proposed anything of the sort.

1928 Baird NoctovisionAnother key Scottish inventor, John Logie Baird, inducted into the Honor Roll of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE) in 2014, also achieved something no one had previously accomplished; in 1925, he created the first recognizable video image of a human face. That, alone, would be enough to put him in a Hall of Fame of television engineering, but he did much more: television broadcasting, television recording, intercity television networking, theatrical television, stereoscopic television, color television, giant flat-panel television, two-way television, projection television, see-in-the-dark television, remote television pickup, home video sales, transatlantic television, no-moving-parts color television displays, high-definition television—the list goes on and on.

Sutton's Telephane Receiver DisplayThough he also worked on electronic television, Baird is best known for his early work in electro-mechanical television. Those “receivers” (displays) required a means of converting the video signal into variations in light intensity (electro-optical transduction). But the earliest television research predates even Edison’s or Swan’s incandescent lamps. Scots to the rescue! William Nicol came up with a prism for polarizing light, and John Kerr came up with a way of rotating the polarization based on the strength of an electrical signal. Nicol prisms and Kerr cells allowed even oil lamps to be considered as television-display light sources, as shown at left in Henry Sutton’s “Telephane.”

Thomson_mirror_galvanometerToday’s video and digital-cinema projectors do something similar, though the electro-optical transduction is often accomplished with tiny moving mirrors. The idea of using an electrical signal to move a mirror was the basis of another Scottish invention, the mirror galvanometer, created by William Thomson in 1858 for the first transatlantic telegraph cable. It was the failure of that cable that led to the research that resulted in television’s other key principle, the conversion of variations in light intensity to an electronic signal (opto-electronic transduction). It was promoted by such great Scots as James Clerk Maxwell, whose work on electricity, magnetism, and light led to broadcasting and other wireless transmission (among other innovations), and Thomson, a president of the Society of Telegraph Engineers, a sponsor of Bain, and, later, Lord Kelvin (yes, the K of the 3200K, 6500K, and 9300K color temperatures of television lights and displays).

Bells_Photophon_SchemaAlexander Graham Bell, another Scot, also promoted opto-electronic transduction. He’s better known, of course, for the invention of his telephone, which led to television sound. But his “photophone,” a means of transmitting electrical signals via a beam of light (the reason he promoted opto-electronic transduction), led to fiber-optic transmission systems.

1753 Scots Magazine 4The telephone was preceded by the telegraph. Schemes for transmitting information at a distance date back to smoke signals, signal fires, jungle drums, and horns (so named because early ones were made from hollowed animal horns). The word telegraph was first used in the late 18th century for a system of information transmission involving semaphore arms on towers. And the electrical telegraph? It’s even older! A complete description appeared in The Scots Magazine in the February 1753 issue under the headline “An expeditious method of conveying intelligence by means of electricity.” It also includes what might be the earliest description of insulated wire.

PSM_V21_D055_The_brewster_stereoscope_1849The article was written by someone using the initials C. M. and writing from Renfrew (near Glasgow). Sir David Brewster, a Scot called “the father of modern experimental optics,” whose designs have been used for stereoscopic 3D TV and movies, was among those who searched for C. M.’s identity.  According to John Joseph Fahie in A History of Electric Telegraphy to the Year 1837 (1884), “certain it is that, in October 1859, [Sir David Brewster] accepted the evidence in favour of C. M. being a Charles Morrison, with as much warmth, and, we fear, as much haste, as he had done that for Charles Marshall in the previous December.”

1828 MirrorPerhaps C. M.’s revelation of conveying intelligence by electricity influenced Sir Walter Scott’s story “My Aunt Margaret’s Mirror.” There had been previous see-at-a-distance crystal balls and magic mirrors, but Scott’s might have been the first called an “apparatus” with a maximum duration of use of seven minutes (to prevent circuit overheating?). At right is a reproduction of a watercolor by John William Wright, showing the “mirror” in operation, published with the story in 1828 (from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Click the image to enlarge it.

1912 Campbell SwintonScott’s story predates even Bain’s image scanning, but Scots have contributed to more-modern forms of television as well. The BBC pioneered 100 Gbps IP connectivity for the television facilities at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014, which also offered 100-frame-per-second viewing, virtual reality, metadata augmentation, and the ability for home viewers to zoom in and pan around. Of course, that required scanned electronic television, not electro-mechanical. Who first came up with that idea? American Philo Farnsworth wasn’t yet two years old when a Scot, Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton, who had previously come up with magnetic focusing of electron beams, published a description of end-to-end scanned electronic television in Nature.

Campbell-Swinton sold himself short. “It is only an idea with which I am concerned,” he wrote in 1912, “and such an apparatus will never be built following these principles.” What might be the best quote about the technology came, however, from a Scott who wasn’t a Scot: C. P. Scott, legendary editor and publisher of the Manchester Guardian, whose trust still owns what’s now called The Guardian. “Television? The word is half Greek and half Latin. No good will come of it.”

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The History, Present, and Possible Future of Increased Resolution for Motion Imaging by Mark Schubin

July 15th, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Schubin Cafe

Presented on July 10, 2015 at the “International Symposium on Medical-Engineering Collaboration: Medicine Definitely Jumps Up with 8K,” organized by and presented at Nihon University, Tokyo.

Direct Link (26 MB / TRT 14:46):
The History, Present, and Possible Future of Increased Resolution for Motion Imaging by Mark Schubin


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Where Are We Going, & How Did We Get Here (The Past) by Mark Schubin

June 1st, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Schubin Cafe

Recorded during “An Evening with Mark Schubin” at the SMPTE New England Section, Dedham Holiday Inn on May 14, 2015.

Learn the extraordinary history of the technology of motion pictures and television. Did you know that the first live video images and the first projected photographic motion pictures were both in the same year, and that year was 1879? That horizontal scanning lines, pixels, and transmitter/receiver synchronization was patented in 1843? That photographic motion pictures were patented in 1852 (and were stereoscopic)? If that’s not enough, Mark promises to show some older moving images — much older. Much, much, much older.

Direct Link ( 114 MB /  TRT 48:00):
Where Are We Going, & How Did We Get Here (The Past) by Mark Schubin


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The Bain of Our Existence

March 2nd, 2015 | No Comments | Posted in Schubin Cafe

Bain from STE 1874 Latimer Clark donation cropped

As is the case for most technologies, television had no single “inventor.” But then there’s the amazing Alexander Bain.

Consider: 1939 August 26 Reds v. Dodgers at Ebbets mobile unitThe first major-league baseball game to be televised was played between the Cincinnati Reds and the Brooklyn Dodgers on August 26, 1939. If one believes that television was introduced at the New York World’s Fair that year a few months earlier, it didn’t take long to get from that introduction to sports coverage. In fact, there was even experimental coverage of a game between Princeton and Columbia Universities on May 17.

1931_Nov-Dec_TV_NEWS - Japan Baseball coverOf course, that’s a very U.S.-centered view of history. Regularly scheduled television broadcasting began in London in 1936 (or even earlier, depending on definitions). As for the first baseball game to be televised, that was in Tokyo in 1931.

Even in the U.S., 1931 saw the first TV shows with original scripts. Regularly-scheduled news telecasts began in Schenectady, New York in 1928. In London, the first public demonstration of a television system capable of depicting a recognizable human face was in 1926, and the first public demonstration of a cruder television system was in 1914.

eyeSiemens10An all-electronic television system was described in the publication Nature in 1908, following the patenting of an electronic picture display in 1907. The word television, itself, was coined in 1900 to describe the many moving-image transmission systems created by that point.

What has been called “the master television patent” — certainly the first patent for a complete television system — was issued in Germany in 1885. The first crude television pictures were seen by 1879. Multiple television systems were described between a demonstration of an “artificial eye” in 1876 and those first crude video pictures of 1879. And before that?

Nothing. Not even science fiction or fantasy. The closest description might be in a tale, offered by Sir Walter Scott in 1828, of a mysterious mirror that saw not only into the distance but also into the past (although it could produce images for no more than seven minutes).

Why did the concept of television suddenly appear in the 1870s? It began, perhaps, with the seemingly appropriately named Wildman Whitehouse.

AgamemnonIn one version of a common joke, a surgeon with a defective lamp calls an electrician, who arrives, works for a moment, fixes the lamp, and presents a bill. “This is outrageous!” the surgeon declares. “I’m a surgeon, and I don’t get paid as much as that.” The electrician replies, “When I was a surgeon, I didn’t get as much, either.”

Whitehouse was a surgeon who became an electrician. As the latter, he came up with a plan to use high voltage to force telegraph messages through the long transatlantic cable of 1858. Whether it was that high voltage or, as later research suggests, flaws of manufacture, the cable failed.

Willoughby Smith imageSo, for its replacement, telegraph engineer Willoughby Smith designed an apparatus to monitor its health. But John Mayhew discovered unusual variations in its readings, seeming to have something to do with light intensity. Smith conducted experiments to prove that the selenium resistors used were photoconductive and wrote to Latimer Clark about it in 1873. Clark informed the Society of Telegraph Engineers (STE), to which he, Smith, and Whitehouse all belonged, along with such other notables as William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin, for whom the K in “3200K” is named) and William Siemens. After much debate and publicity, the Siemens artificial eye appeared, followed by many television proposals. As for the STE, they became the Institution of Electrical Engineers, today the Institution of Engineering and Technology, one of the six partners who produce the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) each year.

Many television histories begin with the photoconductivity discovery or Smith’s experiments, and there’s no question that, as publicized by the STE, they kicked off the efforts to create television. What’s odd, however, is that they weren’t the first. Long before even the first transatlantic cable, in 1839 Edmond Becquerel published in the journal of the French Academy of Science his research that sunlight could create an electrical current. At the time, it seemed just another interesting scientific phenomenon. No one made the leap from that to television.

Bain Wick plaqueThe reason television research began after Smith/Clark and not Becquerel is that, by the time of the discovery of the photoconductivity of selenium, the world was already accustomed to image transmission, and the reason for that was Alexander Bain. There were actually two famous Alexander Bains born in Scotland in the early 19th century. The one who might be considered the father of television (and almost all other forms of electronic imaging) was born in Watten in 1810 and apprenticed to a clock maker in Wick. After hearing a lecture about electricity, he abandoned his apprenticeship and went off to work in the new field.

He worked in both telegraphy and timekeeping, sometimes combining the two. In 1843, while living in London, he received a patent for “Certain improvements in producing and regulating electric currents, and improvements in electric time pieces, and in electric printing and signal telegraphs.” He later said he came up with the idea in 1842. A drawing from his 1848 U.S. patent (5957) is shown below.

Big Bain patent

Bain appears to have been the first to conceive of image scanning. In one fell swoop, he came up with linear (horizontal) scanning lines, pixels, line synchronization, and frame synchronization, all for image transmission. As John Douglas Ryder and Donald G. Fink (the latter the secretary of the U.S. National Television System Committees, NTSC) put it in their 1984 IEEE Press book Engineers & Electrons: a century of electrical progress, Bain’s “concept embodied all the geometrical and timing methods of the modern television system.”

Bakewell-Tape-1850 trimmedJust as the 1873 announcement of the photoconductivity of selenium opened the floodgates for television proposals, Bain’s patent 30 years earlier brought on a flood of proposals for what we might today call fax machines. At right is an image transmitted a long distance in 1850 using a system that created negative images at the receiver.

Caselli_pantelegraph_imageCommercial fax service began in France in 1865 using Bain’s scanning technique. The biggest problem was that the faxes had to be drawn or written with insulating ink. That didn’t stop opera composer Gioacchino Rossini from transmitting a page of music from Paris to Amiens in 1860. By 1863, faxes were even transmitted in color! But some sort of system for converting variations in light intensity to electrical signals was seemingly necessary to transmit photographic images, and that’s what the Smith/Clark 1873 announcement of the photoconductivity of selenium offered.

The fundamental concepts of television were then in place: image scanning and the conversion of light variations to electrical signals. It was already known that wires would glow at different brightnesses depending on the amount of current flowing through them. The rest was just engineering.

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