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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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A Baseball-Opera Chronology

July 12th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted in Opera-Media Servings


“Who Would Doubt That I’m A Man,” sheet music for a baseball song from an 1895 opera

I often write about the history of media technology. So why is this post about the joint history of baseball and opera?

It’s because a good chunk of that history — roughly half a century — was devoted to unusual forms of media technology. It offered broadcasting before radio, live remote visual display of moving images before television, animatronics before electronics, and public-address announcements before loudspeakers.

Beginning in the 19th century (see headline above from The Atlanta Constitution in 1886), fans could go to their local opera house to watch remote baseball games. And, in the 21st century, fans can go to their local baseball stadium (below) to watch remote opera. Really!

32,000 fans watch San Francisco Opera’s Aida at AT&T Park in 2010 (photo by Cory Weaver)

I’ll be posting more on the media technology soon, after an article about it appears in the fall issue of Sports Technology Journal.  In the meantime, you may download and enjoy this brief chronology. Click on the link below.

Some Opera and Baseball


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Alternative Content for Cinema (mp4), NAB, April 15, 2012

April 30th, 2012 | No Comments | Posted in Download, Today's Special

Alternative Content for Cinema
NAB, Las Vegas, NV
April 15, 2012

MP4: Alternative Content for Cinema
24.3 MB
TRT: 22:14

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Getting the Big Picture

March 21st, 2012 | No Comments | Posted in Schubin Cafe


When did theatrical television begin? Would you believe 1877? On March 29 of that year, someone using the pen name “Electrician” described a device called an “electroscope,” some sort of image-transmission system — some sort of large-image transmission system. “Electrician’s” letter was published in The Sun the next day (the newspaper most famous for its “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” editorial 12½ years later). Below is an excerpt.

Today, operas and plays coming from a single theatre are seen at one time in hundreds of cinema auditoriums worldwide. It’s worth noting that 1877, however, long predates the first movie theatre.

Five years later, in 1882, Albert Robida, in his book Le Vingtième siècle (The Twentieth Century), depicted giant video screens (supposedly 25 meters in diameter, though they appear smaller above) on either side of the towering offices of the news organization, L’Époque. Note that, while the right screen is showing a news event, the left one is running a commercial advertisement.

In 1891, Professor E. Stone Wiggins, a Canadian most famous for having predicted a big storm in 1883, described a novel he was writing. As this is being written, many movie theaters are showing John Carter, based on the series of novels written by Edgar Rice Burroughs starting in 1911 and taking place on a fictional version of Mars. Twenty years earlier, Wiggins’s novel was called Jack Suehard; or, Life on Jupiter. It featured “what the people of Jupiter call a ‘stanlon,’ a mirror twenty feet square, which is in every house and a conspicuous object in every street of their cities,” Wiggins told The New York Times (headlines above).  A stanlon provided instantaneous image transmission. “It is the Jovian newspaper, theatre, pulpit, and tribune.”

Although we might never know whether “Electrician” had anything on which to base the 1877 report, Robida and Wiggins were dealing with fiction. Others, however, were working on actual theatrical TV at about the same time. Consider, for example, William Lucas of London.

On April 21, 1882, English Mechanic and World of Science carried his detailed description of his version of a “telectroscope,” a scanned video-projection system, on pages 151-2. It was probably the first proposal for a video projector.

A small portion appears at right, taken from André Lange’s superb history-of-television site.  The complete published article may be read on that site: You can read many other clippings there, too. Here’s the main URL:

Then there was Frantz Dussaud, a Swiss physicist previously best known for his work in sensory-impairment aids. He called his system a “téléoscope.” It used an electric arc light source for a large, bright picture.

At left is a portion of an illustration of it that appeared in the Scientific American Supplement on January 2, 1898. You can read the whole article here:

Take the artist’s illustration above with a grain of salt. As best we currently know, the first video image of a recognizable human face didn’t appear until 1925, and that was in a system designed for individual viewing. But, at about the same time, actual, working, theatrical-television systems were also introduced.

Artists’ illustrations in this post will now change to photographs. In the photos above, shot in a Bell Telephone Laboratories auditorium in 1927, at top left is Herbert Ives standing next to a direct-view video display. The larger photograph shows what was behind the screen, allowing it to work.

In 1930, there were at least five different theatrical-television systems demonstrated — in actual theaters. The first was on January 16 at the RKO-Proctor 58th Street Theater in New York. It was an RCA system that produced a ten-foot-wide image. In April, Ulises Sanabria conducted his first demo in Chicago. On May 22, it was General Electric in Schenectady, New York (above).  On July 28, John Logie Baird presented his version in London. And, on July 30, RCA showed a different system in Schenectady.

The GE, RCA, and Sanabria (Western Television) systems all used projection through mechanical scanning disks. The Baird system (right), like that of Bell Labs, was direct-view, but with thousands of tiny light bulbs instead of a long, folded tube with multiple electrodes.

Baird’s idea of using a matrix of light bulbs as a television display dates back at least to his first patent application, in 1923, which pre-dates the Bell Labs demo. But might he have been influenced by anything else? It’s certainly possible.

There was a completely different path to large-screen moving images, that of outdoor advertising. In 1891, the first flashing electric “spectacular,” a sign for Manhattan Beach, was erected in New York (medical students were hired to throw the knife switch to create the flashing).

The 50-foot-high Heatherbloom Petticoats sign erected in Times Square in 1905 introduced animation, by flashing different bulbs in sequence.  It was followed by the Rice Electric Display Company’s Chariot Race.  After smaller versions were installed in Dayton (in 1908) and Detroit, a big one (left) was installed atop the Normandie Hotel in Manhattan.  It used 20,000 bulbs of different colors and a 600-horsepower engine and showed a 30-second sequence at the equivalent of 42 frames per second.  It also had no direct connection to any advertiser.  Instead, companies could buy time on a three-row message board atop the chariot race.  It was so popular that a special police unit was assigned to control crowds who watched it over and over.

The “Leaders of the World” chariot-race sign could show only one moving-image sequence, but the Luminograph, patented in 1913, projected film onto photocells, which controlled relays, which controlled light bulbs. The later Epok substituted tubes for the relays.

An American version (shown in Times Square at right, window at top indicates size) even let live dancers to perform in front of the photo-cells. By 1937, the Wondersign added color.

Meanwhile, back indoors, video projection had embraced a broad range of technologies. In electromechanical television, there were not only scanning disks but also scanning drums (Scophony) and scanning screws (mirror spirals). In electronic television, there were ultra-high-brightness cathode-ray tubes. Direct-view (non-projection) systems improved to the point where this actual screen photo could be shot of a Telefunken matrix (shown at left) in 1935. Color projection was shown by 1938. An then there were some really unusual systems.

In 1931, radio pioneer Lee de Forest filed a patent for a means of etching video images onto motion-picture film. By 1933, a different version evolved into the Fernseh “intermediate film” system.

A continuous loop of film would be exposed, processed, projected, cleaned of the emulsion, re-coated with fresh emulsion, and re-exposed. The time delay between exposure and projection was considered short enough that it could be used for live events.

Then, before the end of the decade, Fritz Fischer conceived of an extraordinary system. It involved a vacuum pump, an oil bath, a scanned cathode ray, and a strange light-control system called Schlieren optics. It eventually became known as the Eidophor (early version shown at right).

As World War II began, it wasn’t clear whether television would ultimately be more successful in homes or in theaters. Then the war ended, and the results soon came in. U.S. movie theaters sold an average of 90 million admissions per week in every year from 1945 through 1948; by 1950, it was just 60 million, by 1958 40 million, by 1967 under 18 million, less than 20% of the number of two decades earlier (while the country’s population grew 38%).

Hollywood’s movie studios tried getting involved in both home and theatrical TV, but another large-screen video outlet appeared in 1965 in the Houston Astrodome, an electronic scoreboard (created by Fair-Play) with central video-matrix screen (shown above). In 1972, Stewart-Warner installed the first (black-&-white, light-bulb-based) instant-replay video scoreboard at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, and the following year four high-brightness color Eidophor projectors provided video viewing on the “Telescreen” at the indoor Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland (shown at left).

Five years later, in 1978, Mitsubishi started a program to see if they could combine the color, video characteristics of the Telescreen with the outdoor brightness of a scoreboard. Perhaps strangely, the technology they chose was the color picture tube, with one important difference. Instead of getting all three colors and the complete image on one tube, they came up with a tube for each color of each picture element (shown at right). A “flood beam” hit the whole phosphor faceplate of each tube at once.

The first installation of what Mitsubishi called Diamond Vision was at Dodger Stadium in 1980 (shown at left). It was followed by Astrovision (Panasonic), Starvision (EEV), Super Color Vision (Toshiba), JumboTron (Sony), and a system from Omega’s sports timing group, all with variations on the tube idea. And then there was another breakthrough technology.

In 1968, Jim Tietjen at RCA Laboratories suggested an LED-based color TV, and Calvin Diller applied for a U.S. patent on one, but there was a problem: blue LEDs didn’t yet exist. By 1971, the first ones appeared in a lab, but they were exceptionally dim. Even when Cree Research released its commercial blue LEDs in 1989, they were still dim. Nichia Chemical introduced an outdoor-brightness blue LED developed by Shuji Nakamura in 1993. For “pioneering development of emissive technology for large outdoor video screens,” both Mitsubishi and Nakamura received Emmy awards this year. What goes into those large video screens is the subject of my next post:

The rest, as they say, is history, except for one thing that hasn’t quite happened yet. When they were installed, the 175-foot-diagonal LED video screens (one shown above in a photo by Big Cowboy Kev at Cowboys Stadium in Texas were the world’s largest. On April 28 of this year, almost exactly 135 years after “Electrician” suggested it, they will carry The Dallas Opera’s The Magic Flute, live, as it’s being performed in the Winspear Opera House.


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Satellites Are Really Old

January 11th, 2012 | 1 Comment | Posted in Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Cafe

Here’s something to ponder: Why is Galileo called Galileo? Other great astronomers and scientists are known by their last names: Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, etc. Tycho Brahe is known by his first name, but he was Danish, and that was their style at the time. Galileo’s compatriots were known by their last names, but he wasn’t. Why? And what (if anything) does it have to do with the technology of our industry?

This week, the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will be presenting its 63rd-annual Technology & Engineering Emmy Awards. Eight technologies will be honored. One is frequently called the Bloom Mobile (left), or, in the Academy’s language, “Development of Integrated, Deployable Systems for Live Reporting from Remote Environments.” Statues for it will be awarded to journalist David Bloom (posthumously), NBC, and MTN Satellite communications.

That was by no means the first time the Academy found satellite-related technology to be Emmy-worthy. In 2011, HBO and Elmer Musser got awards for satellite-transmitter identification; in 2010, the Metropolitan Opera won for the technology (including satellite delivery) of its global cinemacasts. PanAmSat and DirecTV were honored with 2006 awards, AT&T for the first intercontinental satellite transmission with a 2005 award, DirecTV and EchoStar for their spot-beam work with 2004 awards, etc., all the way back to 1966 awards to Hughes Aircraft and Comsat for the Early Bird satellite (right).

Early Bird (or Intelsat-1) wasn’t the first satellite. It wasn’t even the first artificial satellite (that was Sputnik, a model of which is shown at left,) or even the first commercial communications satellite to carry television signals (Telstar, right). Sputnik was launched in 1957 and Telstar in 1962. Early Bird wasn’t launched until 1965, by which time “live via satellite” was already a well-known phrase on TV.

Telstar was the reason for the 2005 AT&T award (the Academy sometimes takes a long time to get around to its awards; the statues for the 1940-41 work of the first National Television System Committee, or NTSC — not even the second one, which standardized NTSC color — were presented in 2010). If Telstar laid the groundwork, however, why (other than its name) did Early Bird get the earlier award?

It’s because of the orbit that Early Bird was placed in, a geostationary orbit. If a satellite is put into an orbit of 35,786 km (22,236 mi) above mean sea level (a geosynchronous orbit), then it will take it about 23 hours 56 minutes and 4 seconds to complete a trip around the planet, the same amount of time it takes the earth to spin on its axis. If the orbit is over the equator and heading east, therefore, the object in orbit will appear to be at a fixed position in the sky (a geostationary orbit).

What’s so special about a geostationary orbit? Consider Arthur (left). Arthur was the first antenna at the Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station in Cornwall, England. It was named for the Camelot king, whose legendary castle was not far away (other dishes there include Merlin, Guinevere, and Lancelot). Arthur was built in 1962, for use with Telstar. Arthur is 25.9 meters (85 feet) in diameter and weighs 1.118 gigagrams (more than 1,232 tons). Telstar, unfortunately, did not have a geostationary orbit, so Arthur, all 1,232+ tons of him, had to move to track the satellite across the sky. Not only was moving such a big dish an extraordinary task, but, even with the movement, the satellite connection was possible only during that portion of the orbit when the satellite could be “seen” by both the transmitting and receiving antennas (about 20 minutes for a transatlantic hop).

Merlin, at 32 meters (105 feet) in diameter, is even bigger, but, by the time it was put into service, geostationary satellites had eliminated the need for tracking and made full-time satellite communications possible. Not only home satellite TV but also modern cable TV might not have been possible without that orbit. In fact, when the Academy honored Hubert Schlafly (right) for multichannel cable-TV technology in 1992, part of the reason was Schlafly’s nationwide geostationary-satellite reception testing in the early 1970s (the second statue shown was for his work on the through-the-lens prompter).

Early Bird was the first commercial geostationary communications satellite, but Syncom-3 beat it by a year and actually carried television coverage of the 1964 Olympic Games live from Tokyo to North America (Syncom-1 was lost, and Syncom-2’s orbit wasn’t equatorial, so antenna tracking was required). And where did the idea of having an earth-synchronized communications satellite come from? John Pierce, a satellite engineer working at Bell Labs, lectured on the subject in 1954 (published in 1955), but the Academy chose to honor in 1982 even earlier work by a different satellite-related Arthur, Arthur C. Clarke.

Probably best known as the author of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Clarke was a radar specialist during World War II and, even before the war was over, wrote a letter, on behalf of the British Interplanetary Society, to Wireless World magazine (published in February 1945). It was called “Peacetime Uses for V2,” a reference to the German attack rockets, and it contained the following sentences. “An ‘artificial satellite’ at the correct distance from the earth would make one revolution every 24 hours; i.e., it would remain stationary above the same spot and would be within optical range of nearly half the earth’s surface. Three repeater stations, 120 degrees apart in the correct orbit, could give television and microwave coverage to the entire planet.”

In the October 1945 issue of the same periodical, he published a highly detailed, illustrated, four-page paper called “Extra-Terrestrial Relays: Can Rocket Stations Give World-wide Radio Coverage?” A portion of Figure 3 from the paper is shown above. Thanks to that paper, the geostationary orbit is sometimes referred to as “the Clarke orbit.” But he wasn’t the first, either.

Clarke’s paper cites, as its third reference, Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums (The Problem of Space Travel), by Hermann Noordung. Noordung was the pseudonym for Herman Potočnik, a rocket scientist who died in 1929. The referenced book, though Clarke’s paper didn’t cite the date, was published in 1928, and it describes not only the geostationary orbit but also communications between something parked there and the ground. The “something” was likely to be a large, spinning, circular space station of the sort seen in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. A portion of an illustration from the book is shown below. Note the dish at “top” (nominally actually the earth-facing bottom).

Although Potočnik might have been the first to describe communication between an object in geostationary orbit and the earth, he was by no means the first to describe the orbit itself. In 1895, for example, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian scientist, proposed a means of moving things to a “castle” in a geostationary orbit via something now called a space elevator. The idea came to him when he saw the slightly older Eiffel Tower. Although no space elevator has yet been achieved, neither has the concept been rejected. At right is an illustration of NASA’s conception of the idea (click on it for a larger view).

If the geostationary orbit has been known since the 19th century, just how old is it? Well, that space has existed as long as the earth has — about 4.5 billion years, by the latest reckoning (and, although there’s not as much data about it, it appears that our oldest satellite, the moon, is almost as old). So, perhaps the question should be rephrased. How long ago might someone have come up with the distance of a geostationary orbit?

The idea that orbital duration is tied to orbital distance may be found in Johannes Kepler’s third law of planetary motion. And where did that idea come from? The answer involves a false nose, a suppressed need to urinate, a trial for witchcraft, and the reason Galileo is called Galileo.

It begins at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II. He’s shown at left as the Roman god of plant growth, Vertumnus, in a portion of a painting by Giuseppe Arcimboldo around 1591. Arcimboldo was not only the imperial painter but was also entertainment director and fountain designer. A fellow imperial fountain designer was Cornelis Drebbel, who built what is probably the first navigable submarine (possibly with rebreather air supply) and an air-conditioning system. The court also included the poet Elizabeth Jane Weston, the medical doctor and botanist Carolus Clusius, and (among others) the aforementioned Tycho and Kepler.

Tycho, the last of the great naked-eye astronomers, is shown at right in an image of a statue in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum, where he’s called “The Man with the Golden Nose” (like the gunfighter Tim Strawn in the movie Cat Ballou, he lost his real nose in a duel). He was working for Rudolph on a data book about the orbits of celestial objects with Kepler as his assistant, but his nose wasn’t the only strange aspect of his life. His pet moose, for example, died from a fall down a flight of stairs after drinking too much beer. Tycho, too, might have had a death associated with drinking. At an imperial banquet, he reportedly resisted an urge to urinate and might have died as a result (others have recently suggested mercury poisoning). In any case, Kepler took over the task of completing the Rudolphine Tables.

Based on that work, Kepler published Astronomia Nova (the New Astronomy) in 1609, crediting both Rudolph and Tycho on the title page (left). The highly regarded book contains the first two of Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion: that objects move in elliptical orbits, with the object they’re orbiting at one focus of the ellipse (providing tremendous support to the idea of a sun-centered universe) and that a line connecting the orbital body to the body being orbited sweeps equal areas of the ellipse in equal times.

Those are important scientific laws, but they do not suggest a geostationary satellite orbit. That is suggested in Kepler’s third law. Kepler published eight more books by 1618, but not one of them hinted at the third law. And then there was his mother’s trial for witchcraft.

Kepler undertook his mother’s defense, which meant a long trip from his home to the site of the trial. So he took along something to read, a book on musicology and music theory, published in 1581. That book so influenced Kepler that he wrote and published another book, Harmonices Mundi (The Harmonies of the World), in 1619, before the trial was finished. It contains the third law of planetary motion, the one that makes the calculation of a geostationary orbit possible. It also offers appreciation to the author of the 1581 book for helping to shape Kepler’s thoughts.

That author also helped shape the thinking of another famous scientist, Galileo, whom he taught the importance of experimentation. “It appears to me that those who rely simply on the weight of authority to prove any assertion, without searching out the arguments to support it, act absurdly.” He also taught Galileo to play the lute, a practice that served the scientist well when he studied acceleration due to gravity by rolling objects down an inclined plane equipped with bumps like the frets on a lute’s neck; Galileo used the sounds of the objects hitting the bumps to determine their velocities. And the author of that 1581 book was responsible for our calling Galileo Galileo in two senses.

The author was Vincenzo Galilei (right). As father, he chose the name Galileo Galilei because it sounded mellifluous. As musician, composer, scientist (he came up with the principles of tuned strings and pipes), historian, and theorist (credited with the principles of opera), he was already a famous Galilei.

That’s why Galileo is called Galileo and what it has to do with our industry. Now you know.


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Headphones, History, & Hysteria

February 11th, 2011 | 1 Comment | Posted in Schubin Cafe
Fred Flare's Sherbet Colorblock Headphones

Fred Flare’s Sherbet Colorblock Headphones

Headphones are an integral part of modern media production and distribution. So, who invented them?

Here’s one theory: “The first stereo headphones were invented in 1958 by John C. Koss….” That statement may be found at this web site:

Here’s another: “[The Beyerdynamic] DT48 was designed in 1937, the first pair of headphones in human history.” Here’s the web site for that statement:

Then there’s The New York Times Magazine. In it, on January 9 of this year, Virginia Heffernan wrote that headphones had been invented “a century ago” by Nathaniel Baldwin. A provided link to a Utah-history website indicates that the invention was in 1910. Here’s a link to Heffernan’s column: And here’s one to the Utah-history site:

As for me, I don’t know who invented headphones (though I have an informed suspicion, which I’ll reveal later). But I do know many who didn’t invent them. The list includes John Koss, Eugen Beyer, and Nathaniel Baldwin.

All three did make important contributions to headphone history. And, as best I know, none of them claimed the invention personally.

The Koss history may be found on the company’s museum page: Koss, a musician who rented TV sets to hospitals, wanted to sell phonographs developed with his friend, Martin Lange.

Koss SP-3They brought the Model 390 phonograph to a hi-fi show at Milwaukee’s Hotel Wisconsin in 1958. To allow visitors to hear the quality of the sound in the noisy room, according to the Koss Museum, “They demonstrated the 390 along with a pair of aviator headphones.” The headphones were a bigger hit than the phonograph, so Koss started manufacturing SP-3 headphones (shown at left), perhaps launching the modern “personal listening industry.”

dt48e_web_1How do I know that Koss didn’t invent headphones? Among other things, the fact that his first demonstration used existing aviation headphones is a good clue. Another comes from the work of Eugen Beyer, best known today as the creator of the company now known as Beyerdynamic.

In 1937, Beyer’s company introduced the first DT 48 headphones, still sold today (the current version, the DT 48 E, shown at right, is said to be intended for ENG/EFP operations). And, although the DT 48 wasn’t hugely successful when first introduced, the DT 49, introduced in 1953, was very popular in stores that sold music recordings. Here’s a link to the history section of the Beyerdynamic web site:

It’s nice that The New York Times went farther back to some 1910 headphones, and I don’t fault them (much) for not realizing they weren’t the first. There’s no question that Nathaniel Baldwin manufactured headphones. One pair is shown below left, as pictured on the Vintage Headphones site:

Baldwin vintage_headphone-65023005128106430Baldwin’s headphones also show up in U.S. Navy documentation. Admiral Arthur Jepy Hepburn, head of the Navy’s Radio Division at the time, recalled coming “across a letter from Salt Lake City written with violet ink on blue and pink pad paper. The writer, a Mr. Baldwin, stated that he was sending a pair of telephones, which he had patented, and requested that they be tested. He wrote that they had a resistance of about 2,000 ohms, which he understood was standard for Navy headsets, but he could not be sure because he had no way of measuring it.”

That quotation is from section 9 of chapter XI of the book History of Communications-Electronics in the United States Navy, by Captain Linwood S. Howeth, USN (Retired).  It may be read here: The section goes on to describe how much more sensitive Baldwin’s headsets were than existing Navy versions and how, after some false starts, he also made them more comfortable than the existing versions.

So, how do I know that Baldwin didn’t invent headphones?  Well, in part, it’s because the Navy book shows that Balwin’s were better than existing ones, which means that Baldwin’s weren’t the first. And the fact that Baldwin hoped his matched the Navy impedance shows that even Baldwin was aware of the earlier versions.

electrophoneheadphonesAnother reason Baldwin’s cannot be the first is because of something the BBC called “The 19th Century iPhone,” the Electrophone: Electrophone service began in Britain in 1895. According to the BBC story, “If [Electrophone subscribers] wanted opera they could be connected to the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. They would then put on their headset and listen.” A version of the headset is shown at right.  Its four wires indicate that it was stereo-capable (the first live transmission of stereo sound took place in 1881, as I described in this earlier post:

Telefon Hirmondo - trimmedIt’s true that the Electrophone headphones were worn under the chin instead of over the head, but the Electrophone followed the slightly earlier Hungarian Telefon Hírmondó. The drawing at left shows a subscriber to that service clearly wearing a set of over-the-top headphones.

Were the Telefon Hírmondó headphones the first?  They were not.

1890 Mercadier trimmedAt right is a portion of an 1890 drawing of someone taking dictation by telephone while wearing a pair of Ernest Mercadier’s headphones. The full photo may be found in the book Vintage Telephones of the World, by P. J. Povey and R. A. J. Earl, published in 1988 by Peter Peregrinus Ltd., London, in association with London’s Science Museum, as part of the Institution of Electrical Engineers’ (IEE) History of Technology Series 8.

Mercadier did his work in Paris. On June 16, 1891, he received U.S. Patent 454,138 for his headphones, called a Bi-Telephone. But even they weren’t the first headphones.

Pages 3 & 4 of the July 6, 1888 issue of The Electrical Engineer had the following two sentences: “The operator’s receiver has been designed to leave hands perfectly free, and is mounted on a strop or band, which goes over the head and allows the receiver (or two if preferred) to come close over the ear. This form is largely used in Lisbon by subscribers who wish to hear the opera without leaving their residences, and is greatly appreciated.”

Was there a subscription service delivering opera to homes in 1888? There was. It actually began in 1885, as I noted in this previous post:

elbow restWere those the first headphones? Perhaps they were. It depends on one’s definition of headphones and who the users had to be.

Those 1888 headphone users were listening to music at home, just as users of Koss’s headphones did in the late 1950s. And what did those headphones replace? Previously, listeners to stereo music sent over telephone lines had to hold a receiver to each ear. To reduce muscle strain, there were elbow rests, as shown at the left.

If the definition of headphones is not restricted to home users, however, the people who needed them first were telephone operators. Without headsets of some kind, they would be restricted to positions in front of telephone microphones and would have to hold receivers to their ears throughout their work shifts.

Fang operator 2Ezra Gilliland, who worked for both the Bell Telephone Company and Thomas Edison and was later involved in sound recordings, rigged a telephone transmitter (mouthpiece) and receiver (earpiece) into a contraption that sat on an operator’s shoulders. According to various reports, the Gilliland harness weighed between 6 and 11 lbs. It appears to have been in use no later than 1881.

One is depicted to the right. The photo is a portion of one that appears in the book A History of Mass Communication by Irving Fang, published by Focal Press in 1997.

Was that the first form of headphone? Possibly. Think of it the next time you decide to complain about your intercom.

A year before the earliest published information we know about the Gilliand harness, however, Edward P. Fry, an invalid, installed a telephone connection to New York’s Academy of Music so he could listen to operas.  Much has been published about Fry’s listening habits, which included reading a small book of the opera’s text (libretto) and surrounding himself with photos of the singers, which he would pat when he thought they did well and turn upside down when he didn’t.

It seems unlikely that an invalid held a telephone receiver to his ear for hours while also reading a libretto and manipulating photographs. So, it’s possible that the first headphone was created in 1880. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it was even a little bit earlier.

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How Different Is 3D?

November 11th, 2010 | No Comments | Posted in 3D Courses, Schubin Cafe

cameroSmWhen you watch a televised advertisement for an automobile, do you fear there’s a moving car in the room with you? I didn’t think so. But more on that later.

This post is about human perception of 3D imagery. It’s also about how we see moving images in general and about color, sound, carsickness, and the idea of smashing open a TV set with a hammer to allow the tiny people inside to be seen more clearly.

ABZ smallThat last suggestion probably first appeared in 1961 in an age-inappropriate alphabet tome called Uncle Shelby’s ABZ Book, written by Shel Silverstein. In it, T was for TV. The book indicated that small performing elves lived inside the television set and an adventurous child reader using a hammer to break open the tube “will see the funny little elves.”

That same year, Colin M. Turnbull of the American Museum of Natural History published “Some observations regarding the experiences and behavior of the BaMbuti Pygmies” in the American Journal of Psychology. One of the observations seems related to those little elves in the television set.

African_Buffalo_Drawing_historic small“As we turned to get back in the car, Kenge looked over the plains and down to where a herd of about a hundred buffalo were grazing some miles away. He asked me what kind of insects they were, and I told him they were buffalo, twice as big as the forest buffalo known to him. He laughed loudly and told me not to tell such stupid stories and asked me again what kind of insects they were. He then talked to himself, for want of more intelligent company, and tried to liken the buffalo to the various beetles and ants with which he was familiar.”

Those of us who grew up with television and open spaces might find both stories equally ludicrous. We know the people we see on a TV screen are full size (and don’t live inside the television set) and so are distant animals. But why do we know that?

Based on the angles their images form on our retinas, we should think the people we see on a small TV screen are tiny. We don’t only because we’ve learned what TV is. Kenge, a life-long forest dweller, had never been exposed to distant vision, so he’d never learned how small things might look when viewed from far away.

Banks V-AWhat does that have to do with 3D? Take a look at the diagram at the left. It was created by Professor Martin Banks of the Visual Space Perception Laboratory at the University of California – Berkeley. The vertical axis represents viewing distance from a movie or TV screen, the “accommodation” or eye’s-lens focusing distance. The horizontal axis represents the depth within a stereoscopic 3D image where something appears to be, the “vergence” or “convergence” distance, the distance to which the two eyes point (“vergence” is used because eyes can both converge and diverge).

The dark-colored area represents a comfortable viewing zone — a depth range where 3D viewing should not make viewers feel sick. The lighter-colored area represents a potentially uncomfortable “fusion” zone, where viewers can combine the two eye views into a single object or character, though they might not like doing so. Outside that zone, even fusing the two images into one can be a problem.

At viewing distances of at least 3.2 meters (easily achieved in cinema auditoriums; less common in homes), the comfort zone appears to extend out to an infinite depth behind the screen, and only very close vergence depths are a problem. At shorter (home) viewing distances, even significant depth behind the screen can cause discomfort, as well as in front of it.

in-three home_theaterThere’s an easy solution to the problem, one put forth in the white paper “3D in the Home.” It was previously available on the web site of the 3D company In-Three.

In accordance with the comfort-zone plotted above, the In-Three white paper said depth could extend to an infinite distance behind the screen for movie-auditorium viewing, with restriction only for imagery extending in front of the screen. As shown in the diagram at right, however, for a home-theater viewing distance of six feet, the white paper suggested restricting depth behind the screen to just four feet and depth in front of the screen to less than two feet. That depth range, too, seems well within the vergence-accommodation comfort zone.

football_field trimmedIt might be possible to restrict shooting to that depth range in a talking-heads-style public-affairs discussion. But that’s an extremely limited range.

It’s unlikely to be sufficient even for a variety or reality show, let alone for most sports. Two football players standing side-by-side perpendicularly to the camera might exceed the range all by themselves.

Another alternative, therefore, is to shoot the natural scene depth but adjust homologous points in the two eye views so that the depth presented on a home display does not stray beyond the comfort zone. Unfortunately, the shrunken depth might cause those football players to be perceived as being tiny, like the supposed buffalo insects or mythical TV-set elves.

Banks apparatus trimmedProfessor Banks is well qualified to discuss discomfort associated with viewing stereoscopic imagery. He designed an impeccable experiment that proved that a vergence-accommodation conflict could cause discomfort (one experimental subject even aborted the sequence due to extreme queasiness). At right a subject bites a bar to ensure accurate distance measurements. But Banks was by no means the first person to note the consequences of a vergence-accommodation (V-A) conflict.

The zone of comfort is often called Percival’s zone in honor of Archibald Percival, who published “The Relation of Convergence to Accommodation and Its Practical Bearing” in Ophthalmic Review in 1892 (and even in that paper, Percival attributed ideas to prior work published by Franciscus Donders in 1864). The reason eye doctors have been concerned about V-A conflict relates, in part, to eyeglasses. If you wear them, you might have noticed a queasy feeling when you put on your first pair or when there was a substantial change in the prescription. But that feeling probably faded as you became accustomed to the V-A conflict.

1940_in_first-tv-network_mAnother group that was interested in V-A conflict was the original National Television System Committee (NTSC), which began meeting in 1940, the year this off-screen photo was taken. WRGB was named in honor of Dr. Walter Ransom Gail Baker, the engineer who became the head of the NTSC (the initials also stand for white-red-green-blue color systems).

The first NTSC came up with the standard for American black-&-white television, but they were also concerned about color. One of their concerns was that simple lenses (like those in our eyes) cannot focus red and blue in the same place at the same time. The change in focus is a change in accommodation, potentially leading to a V-A conflict. In other words, color TV, in theory, could have made people sick.

In fact, the NTSC concluded that it wouldn’t, based on such work as a paper by Technicolor research director Leonard Troland published in the 1926 American Journal of Physiological Optics specifically related to color motion pictures and the V-A conflict.  But, even if color TV would have made viewers sick in 1926, would it always have done so?

Ciotat2Consider, for example, a short movie shot by the Lumiere brothers in 1895, L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (The Arrival of a Train at the Station of La Ciotat). The original looked a little better than what’s shown here, but it was black-&-white and silent. And it’s clear that the train is not heading straight towards the camera.

Nevertheless, here is a report (translated from the original French) from Henri de Parville, an audience member at an early screening. “One of my neighbors was so much captivated that she sprang to her feet… and waited until the car disappeared before she sat down again.” The same reaction was not reported from screenings of other movies, such as one of workers leaving the Lumiere factory. In other words, it seems as though the crude, silent, black-&-white movie made at least one audience member react as though there were a locomotive in the screening room.

Tone TestAbout a quarter-century later, Thomas Edison conducted what he called “tone tests,” at which audience members were blindfolded or placed in a dark room and asked if they could tell the difference between a live opera singer and a mechanical phonograph recording of one. Here’s a contemporary account from the Pittsburgh Post in 1919 about a test conducted at a concert hall. “It did not seem difficult to determine in the dark when the singer sang and when she did not. The writer himself was pretty sure about it until the lights were turned on again and it was discovered that [the singer] was not on the stage at all and that the new Edison [phonograph] alone had been heard.”

It might seem ridiculous to readers today that a viewer could be scared by a silent, black-&-white movie of a train or that a listener couldn’t tell the difference between a live singer and a mechanical recording of one (in fairness, I should point out that one of the singers revealed, many years later, that she’d taught herself to sound like a phonograph recording). But that’s because we’ve learned to perceive the differences between those recordings and reality.

There are many examples of such perception education. You might have outgrown your childhood carsickness, for example, just as sailors get over seasickness.

In 3D, research into the amount of time it takes subjects to fuse stereoscopic images has found not only improvement with experience but even the ability of those who underwent the experiments to fuse stereoscopic images more rapidly when tested again after a very long period of no exposure to stereoscopic images.  3D perception, it seems, comes back, just like riding a bicycle. And some eye doctors specialize in training people with stereoscopic perception problems.

There are two pages of health warnings in the manuals of Samsung 3DTVs, and at least some of them may be very well justified by such issues as the vergence-accommodation conflict.  But that doesn’t mean viewers will always have problems watching 3DTV.

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125th Anniversary of Pay Cable

October 29th, 2010 | 3 Comments | Posted in Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Cafe

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria TVQuestion: What is shown in the drawing at the left?

Here’s more information to help you figure it out: It’s a small portion, the lower left corner, of a larger drawing, and there’s something very similar at the lower right corner as well. The larger drawing appeared as a two-page spread on pages 76 and 77 of a Portuguese periodical called O Antonio Maria. The illustration (and the article that followed it) is about an event involving media technology and popular culture.

Do you think you have a good handle on the object being depicted in the drawing? The date of the periodical in which it appeared is 6 de Março de 1884, or, in English, March 6, 1884, more than 126 years ago.

Today is the 125th anniversary of pay cable. The event shown in the drawing, about a year-and-a-half earlier, helped make pay cable possible. And pay cable helped create the news and entertainment media as we know them. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Fox News Channel is not yet 15 years old. MTV is 29. CNN is 30. Next month HBO will be 38. Those numbers are all a lot lower than 125.

Cable markerHere’s a historical marker erected by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania at 1501 E. Centre Street in Mahanoy City. This is what the fine print says: “The first cable television system in Pennsylvania, believed to be the first in the United States, was established June 1948 in Mahanoy City by John Walson. This community antenna (CATV) system, operated by Mr. Walson’s Service Electric Company, initially connected only three channels to his Main and Pine Street store and a few homes. In the following decade, Service Electric grew to serve many thousands of cable subscribers.” If you’d like even more information, here’s a link to the marker’s web site:

I have no desire to set off another war between the states, so let me just say that, whatever the origins of community-antenna television in the United States, I believe they occurred at around that time. But the U.S. is not the whole world.

1937 July TV and Shortwave WorldRegularly scheduled all-electronic television broadcasts began in Britain before they did in the U.S., and so did subscription television retransmission systems. At left is a portion of a drawing that appeared in the July 1937 issue of Television and Short-Wave World in an article titled “Television Relays for Modern Flats.”

The article described the systems being installed by a company called Radio Furniture and Fittings. That comany was later absorbed by Rediffusion, an organization the very name of which suggests pay cable, and that was, in fact, its initial business. The name Radio Furniture and Fittings, however, suggests that cable TV wasn’t that company’s only business.

In fact, they provided cable-radio service for years before they got involved in cable TV. So did Rediffusion.

1932 Broadcast Relay ServiceRediffusion was created by Broadcast Relay Service Ltd., established in 1928 to provide radio programming to subscribers. Did they relay radio signals over coaxial cables?

As might be suggested by this 1932 photo of one of their storefronts, copyright by and used here with permission, they did not. Instead, they ran unshielded wires to homes and connected them to loudspeakers.

Rediffusion later applied similar principles to TV distribution. As I noted in my article “The World of CATV Engineering and the CATV Engineering of the World” in Videography in April 1978, Rediffusion’s TV subscribers didn’t receive retransmitted broadcast signals via coaxial cable; they received much-lower-frequency signals carried over wires. “Changing channels” was actually done by switching between signals on different wires.

1922 Fredonia Telephone Company in TelephonySubscription redistribution by wire of wireless broadcasts was a service available in the U.S. no later than 1922. J. A. Gustafson, manager of the Fredonia [Kansas] Telephone Company, wrote in the December 16, 1922 issue of Telephony, “We have added a radio receiving set to our central office equipment and furnish radio service to our subscribers. This service is furnished over cable pairs that would otherwise be idle.

“To furnish this service we use a standard radio receiving set and three stages of amplification. A circuit is furnished to the subscriber at a monthly rental for the circuit only, and the subscriber buys his own loud-speaker or receivers.” Gustafson went on to describe various revenue models, including subscription, pay-per-listen, and coin-operated.

That was roughly 88 years ago, a nice ripe age, and also the standard number of keys on a piano keyboard. But more than a hundred years before that a keyboard instrument played a role in what would become pay cable.

Wheatstone lyre book 2 trimmed

British physicist Charles Wheatstone used to give “enchanted lyre” “telephone concerts.” The audience sat around a fake metallic lyre suspended from a wire, as shown above.

The wire went through the ceiling, where it connected to the frame of a keyboard instrument in an unseen room. A musician would play upstairs, and the sound would be conducted down the wire to the lyre downstairs.

Wheatstone called it an “acouryptophone.” A reporter for the journal Repository of Arts speculated in the September 1, 1821 edition that there might someday be more wires, extended farther, allowing people to listen to opera in their favorite tavern.

Opera alert: The word “opera” is going to appear frequently between here and the end of this post. It’s not because an opera (New York City Opera’s Le coq d’or) was carried exclusively on cable-TV channels (no broadcast) in 1971. It’s also not because today, in addition to being the 125th anniversary of pay cable, is also the start of the first anniversary of National Opera Week:

It’s because opera played a role in all of the following events. It was a very popular form of entertainment, the rock concerts and football games of the 19th century, and opera companies were institutions with the resources necessary to try technological marvels. You can read about opera’s role in the development of stereo sound and broadcasting in my post on the 100th anniversary of the first live opera broadcast here:

In the December 30, 1848 issue of Punch, there was an article about a proposed “opera telakouphanon.” The last word in the previous sentence was a term applied to a “speaking trumpet,” a form of hearing aid. The author speculated that some version might be used “to bring home the Opera to every lady’s drawing-room in London.” But a new element (besides substituting homes for taverns) was introduced to the 1821 idea: it was to go only “to the dwellings of all such as may be willing to pay for the accommodation.”

As the telephone was being developed, a writer for The New York Times speculated in 1876 that it would be used to deliver opera from the Academy of Music (the city’s main opera house at the time). The following year (1877), a cartoon in Punch’s Almanack for 1878 (below) showed how a home of the future would be able to select from different opera offerings.

1877 Dec 14 Punch Telephone 3 trimmed

In 1878 opera actually was carried electrically over wires in Bellinzona, Switzerland, and in 1881 it was carried in stereo from the Paris Opera to the Exhibition Hall of the Palace of Industry as part of the International Electrical Congress. Below is a diagram from a Scientific American report that year.

Ader 1881opr2

All of the above set the stage for the event depicted in the first drawing at the top of this post. Augusto Machado was a Portuguese opera composer, but Portugal was not the center of the opera world in the 1880s, so he opened his opera Lauriane in Marseilles in 1883. After its success, Machado was bringing it home to Lisbon on March 1, 1884.

It was a big deal: a local-boy-makes-good story.  O Diário de Notícias (The Daily News), alone, ran five articles about it between February 28 and March 3. The king was to attend. And that turned out to be a problem.

King Luis I’s sister, Maria Ana, Princess of Saxony, died on February 5.  Rules of royal mourning restricted the king to the palace.  He could not attend the Portuguese premiere of the opera.

Alan Danvers, engineer and manager of Lisbon’s Edison Gower-Bell Telephone Company, was aware of the previous opera transmissions and came up with the idea of putting microphones into the opera house and connecting them to the palace. The article in O Antonio Maria includes multiple illustrations of the king listening to the opera, such as the one below.

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria King Luis 1

The king knighted Danvers for his services. More significant for us, the following year the theatrical concession company Matos & Valdez entered into an agreement with Danvers’s telephone company to provide a pay-cable opera service to subscribers.  For 180,000 reis (about $74 at the time or around $1750 today) for the season, they could listen to up to 90 opera performances.

The first was Mefistofele on October 29, 1885, 125 years ago today. It was the first subscription entertainment service delivered to homes, and it led to, among other things, radio, television, and the first newscasts, as shown below at the Telefon-Hirmondó in Budapest (see the 100th-anniversary post for details). Opera sound continued to be delivered by pay cable into the 1940s.


What about that drawing at the top of this post? Yes, the opera that was the subject of that article and drawing was transmitted in 1884, but it was a sound-only transmission. So why are there what appear to be TV monitors at the lower left and right?

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria full

1884 Mar 6 - O Antonio Maria TelephoneThere’s nothing in the article to explain them, and the artist is no longer alive, but details at the bottom, such as one just over the signature, might offer a hint. Microphones (called “telephone transmitters” or even just “telephones”) in 1884 were not necessarily shaped as they are today.

By the way, in addition to pay cable, another modern technology was being developed at that time. Ever since the publication of the photoconductive properties of selenium in 1873, there was a great deal of interest in the creation of what we now call television. Also in 1885, for example, Germany issued what was later called “the basic television patent.”

1880 de PaivaThe first book on the subject was published in Portugal in 1878 by a physics professor who was later made Count of Campo Belo by the same King Luis I. This is the cover of an 1880 edition of the book, with text in English, French, and Portuguese.  You can read it here:

Campo Belo might ring a bell based on the 1958 play and 1960 movie Sunrise at Campobello, about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s getting polio before he became President of the United States.  FDR was the first President to appear on all-electronic television (Herbert Hoover appeared on electromechanical television when he was Secretary of Commerce).  And Sunrise at Campobello was written and produced by Dore Schary, who later ran Theatre Vision, an early contemporary of HBO in the field of, yes, pay cable.

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100th Anniversary Today

January 13th, 2010 | 1 Comment | Posted in Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Snacks


It isn’t often that we get hundredth anniversaries in media technology, so I figured this one — a double-header, actually — is worth mentioning.  Today is the anniversary of the first live broadcast of a complete opera; yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the first live opera broadcast.

If that’s enough for you, stop reading, and go on to something else.  But, if you’d like to learn a bit more about how opera made possible stereo sound, home entertainment, and even the newscast, read on.  You have been warned, however, that this will not be a just a tiny nibble.

deForestRadio pioneer Lee De Forest was an opera lover.  The May 1907 prospectus of his Radio Telephone Company said, “It will soon be possible to distribute grand opera music from transmitters placed on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House by a Radio Telephone station on the roof to almost any dwelling in Greater New York and vicinity.”  He hired opera singers to sing into his microphones and also transmitted opera-music records, even from the Eiffel Tower.

He reportedly couldn’t get Met general manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza to agree to allow a live radio broadcast, however, until De Forest pointed out that a stage microphone would also allow Gatti-Casazza to hear from his office what was happening on stage (though the previous general manager had already installed such a system).  Finally, an experimental broadcast was authorized.

On January 12, 1910, Acts II & III of Tosca were sent by a transmitter at the Met, via an antenna strung between two masts on the roof, to a handful of receiving stations in the New York area.  The New York Times accurately reported, “This will only be an experiment and perfect results are not expected immediately.”  Those singing or talking into a microphone offstage were heard much better than those singing on the stage.  Memory and imagination probably helped listeners.

Still, the world’s first live opera broadcast went fairly well.  But, as is so often the case immediately after a reasonably successful experiment, the idea was exploited.  Reporters were invited by the Dictograph Company, which provided the microphones, to hear two operas broadcast the next day, Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci, with superstars Emmy Destinn and Enrico Caruso.

The press invitation said the beautiful voices would be “trapped and magnified by the dictograph directly from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House, and borne by wireless Hertzian waves over the turbulent waters of the sea to transcontinental and coastwise ships, and over the mountainous peaks and undulating valleys of the country.”  In fact, on the 12th, there was shipboard reception, on a vessel docked at a Manhattan pier.  As for the peaks and valleys, The Times had estimated a radius of perhaps 50 miles, given the low height of the opera-house roof.

On the 12th, others respectfully refrained from interfering with the broadcast.  On the 13th, a report in Telephony said, “deliberate and studied interference from the operator of the Manhattan Beach station of the United Wireless Company” caused “some interruption.”  “But,” according to The Times, “the reporters could hear only a ticking which the operator finally translated as follows, the person quoted being the interrupting operator: ‘I took a beer just now, and now I take my seat.'”

Oscar Hammerstein, whose Manhattan Opera House competed with the Met, installed a wireless station in his new London Opera House the next year.  But it wasn’t for broadcasting; it was for selling tickets to “passengers in the great liners 500 miles out at sea,” according to The Times.

This is another opportunity for you to bail out and stop reading.  Want to know a little bit more about early opera radio before the Metropolitan Opera’s Saturday-afternoon series began in 1931?  Read on.

Before the First Live Opera Radio Broadcast

– In 1876 (55 years after opera broadcasts were predicted in The Repository of Arts), Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone (whether Antonio Meucci, a former stagehand at Florence’s Teatro della Pergola opera house, actually beat Bell to the punch in 1849 experiments as technical director at Havana’s Teatro Tacón opera house is a different issue).

Meucci_fogliettoOn March 22, The New York Times noted that “By means of this remarkable instrument, a man can have the Italian opera, the Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher laid on his own house.”  In fact, they raised the box-office concern that “No man who can sit in his own study with his telephone by his side, and thus listen to the performance of an opera at the Academy, will care to go to Fourteenth street and to spend the evening in a hot and crowded building.”  The following year, George du Maurier published a cartoon in which a household selected among opera offerings delivered by wire.

Theatrophone_-_Clement_Ader_1881– In 1881, Clément Ader demonstrated the world’s first stereo transmission from the stage of the Paris Opéra. Multiple microphones fed multiple earpieces at the International Exhibition and Congress of Electricity.  Listeners held a receiver to each ear to get immersed in the sound field.  As the term stereo wasn’t yet in use for audio, the extensive report on the demonstration in Scientific American on December 31 of that year referred to it as binauricular auduition and said it provided an auditive perspective similar to what the stereoscope provided for vision.

Possibly as a result of the 1881 experiment, an 1882 book science-fiction book by Albert Robida, Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century), devoted an entire chapter to opera on TV.  But, referring to Ader’s opera without visuals (before opera recordings or opera on the radio), a critic reported, “The telephone is a harsh judge.”  Ader nevertheless pursued the idea of making delivery of live opera sound outside the opera house a permanent option.

Commercial service followed, beginning in Portugal in 1885, delivering operas in stereo to homes and other locations, the world’s first electronic entertainment service for homes.  The idea soon spread across much of the world, and, in 1891, the opening of the opera Le Mage in Paris was heard live in London.  Marcel Proust was a Théâtrophone subscriber and wrote of listening to the opera Pelléas et Mélisande in bed at home.

Theatrophone poster

telefon hirmondo 3
– The Théâtrophone used a coin-operated business plan for its institutional service and a pay-per-event (plus subscription) plan for its home service.  Ader’s Hungarian associate, Tivadar Puskás, chose a monthly-subscription model for his version, which began in 1893 (Nikola Tesla worked on the design). That meant that the lines were available when operas weren’t being transmitted, so the newscast was invented to give subscribers something to listen to before operas (and during intermissions).  In 1930, the Hungarian service, Telefon Hírmondó (Telephone Herald), had 91,079 subscribers in Budapest alone who got the opera each night, with news reports during the intermission.

– In 1900, at the Paris Exhibition, Horace Short (like Ader, better known as an aircraft inventor) installed an “auxeto-gramophone,” a compressed-air-amplified record player, near the top of the Eiffel Tower and acoustically broadcast recordings of arias by stars of the Paris Opéra.  The sounds could be heard throughout Paris, with no listening apparatus required.

– In 1904, Professor Otto Nussbaumer of the University of Graz in Austria sang into a microphone and was heard wirelessly next door, possibly the first vocal music carried by radio.  The physics department head reportedly told him, “Your box works, but your singing is awful.”

Between the First Live Opera Broadcast and the Start of the Met Saturday-Afternoon Series

– In 1919, U.S. Navy transmitter NFF, at the time the world’s most powerful, broadcast live from the New Brunswick Opera House and was reportedly heard on a ship 2,000 miles at sea.  In Chicago, the Signal Corps aired opera records.

Hugo Gernsback's 1919 Proposal for Live Cinema Sound

Hugo Gernsback’s Proposal for Live Cinema Sound

– A 1919 proposal called for opera movies to be shot & distributed and projected to the singers, whose voices would be broadcast live to movie theaters to run in sync with the pictures.  The Met’s first live cinema transmission (31 theaters in 27 cities) took place in 1952, with local TV stations having to agree to drop their network feeds so the coaxial cable could be used for the opera.  Today, the Met’s Live in HD reaches more than 1,000 cinemas in 42 countries via satellite.

Nellie Melba small










– In 1920, Nellie Melba sang into a powerful transmitter at the Marconi factory in Chelmsford, England and was heard throughout Europe and even across the Atlantic.  In fact, the transmission was so powerful that it interfered with all others and was eventually shut down by the authorities.  The Melba transmission was recorded in Paris, possibly the first off-air sound recording.

– The same year, four medical students in Buenos Aires had planned a single radio transmission, but, not wanting to be outdone by Marconi & Melba, changed it into an entire season of live operas broadcast from Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires.  The first, on August 27, was Parsifal.

– On May 19 & 20,1921, the opera Martha was broadcast from Denver’s Municipal Auditorium by 9ZAF, a Special Amateur station said at the time to have had a range of 1500 miles.  Reception was reported from Wyoming.  This is believed to be the first opera broadcast by a station licensed to operate in the commercial radio band.

– In 1922, shortly before the Met broadcast a Veteran’s Day concert version of Aida from an armory, the real-life son of the singer playing Mimi stepped in as her lover Rodolfo after the tenor “got out of line” in an amateur Salt Lake City Bohème broadcast.  An “elocutionist” described the action.

– In a 1924 Boston broadcast of Il Trovatore, the manager announced that the tenor couldn’t continue after the second act and a messenger would be sent to get Gaetano Tommasini as a replacement.  Having heard the announcement in his hotel room, Tommasini arrived before the messenger left.

– AT&T’s WEAF (now WNBC) established a National Grand Opera Company in 1925, when it began weekly condensed-opera broadcasts.  There was also a WEAF National Light Opera Company, both later taken over by NBC (which also ran a television opera company for 16 years).

– The 1927 inaugural broadcast of what is now CBS included a condensed version of Deems Taylor’s opera The King’s Henchman. A condensed version of African-American composer Harry Freeman’s opera Voodoo was broadcast in 1928 before being staged.  And, in 1929, Cesare Sodero’s Ombre Russe became the first full opera to have its world premiere on radio (NBC) before opening in an opera house.  But the first opera commissioned (by NBC) for radio (Charles Cadman’s The Willow Tree) didn’t premiere until 1932, and, in 1937, Louis Gruenberg’s Green Mansions was the first commissioned (by CBS) as a “non-visual opera.”

– In 1930, NBC carried a live broadcast of part of Fidelio from the Dresden State Opera House in Germany.  The schedule noted it would be carried “atmospheric conditions permitting.”

Old Cross

Milton Cross, one of only three permanent announcers in the history of Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts

– In 1931, the Met began its live network opera broadcasts, which continue to this day, said to be the longest-running series of live broadcasts (they were sponsored by the same company, best known as Texaco, from 1940 through 2004, said to be the longest continuous sponsorship in broadcast history).  During the first broadcast, commentator Deems Taylor described the action during orchestral interludes, outraging opera purists, who called NBC, one woman saying she couldn’t hear what was going on because “some idiot keeps talking.”  A telegram asked, “Is it possible to have Mr. Taylor punctuate his speech with brilliant flashes of silence?”  But Taylor told the audience two weeks later, “We have received several thousand replies, of which fewer than 100 were opposed to being told what was going on upon the stage.”  Nevertheless, the Met later restricted commentary to periods when the house lights were on.

And the rest — live TV, cinema, subtitles, satellite, Internet, HD, and even 3-D opera — is history.

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Sports, News, Porno, and… Opera?

August 25th, 2009 | No Comments | Posted in Schubin Cafe
RCA Hawkeye

RCA Hawkeye

Ampex HS-100

Ampex HS-100

Electronic slow motion was invented for sports video. Tapeless camcorders were created for TV news. Pornography made streaming video successful.  But something else that seems to drive media-technology innovation is opera.  Really.  Opera.

The European Digital Cinema Forum’s 2008 EDCF Guide to Alternative Content for Digital Cinema begins with a chapter on opera because opera happens to be the number-one form of alternative (non-movie) content worldwide, beating out rock concerts, sports, and political events. In many countries, a single opera showing is enough to out-earn a weekend’s worth of continuous movie showings to finish in the top-10 box-office grosses. More »

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