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

February 10th, 2017 | 1 Comment | Posted in Opera-Media Servings, Schubin Cafe


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

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

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

1877 New York Sun opera TV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Truth Will Out

July 8th, 2016 | No Comments | Posted in Schubin Cafe


A Capitol Fourth

A Capitol Fourth is one of the longest-lasting shows on PBS and is said to be the highest rated. It’s an extraordinary undertaking, with stars from virtually every genre of music performing live both in front of a huge crowd on the west lawn and steps of the U.S. Capitol building and, simultaneously, on TV stations across the country. On the engineering end, the show entails an enormous performance tent for the National Symphony Orchestra, giant screens, transmission links for cameras as far as kilometers away, audio setups for different performers on different stages (ranging from soft-voiced singers to marching bands to the cannons that punctuate Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture). The credits even include a meteorologist, who determines whether it’s safe for the show to go on.

On July 4 this year, the weather was safe but not good. Host Tom Bergeron kept hyping the upcoming fireworks, and an on-screen graphic noted the minutes and seconds to go before the first blast. Unfortunately, the cloud ceiling was low, and little more could be seen of the starbursts than a colored glow in the sky. So the show resorted to clearer pre-recorded fireworks, creating a minor scandal. A tweet from the show’s account said, in part, “It was the patriotic thing to do.”

John AdamsThat’s probably true. After the second Continental Congress passed the resolution of independence, John Adams wrote to his wife, Abigail, that that glorious “Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha, in the History of America. I am apt to believe it will be celebrated, by succeeding Generations, as the great anniversary Festival. It ought to be commemorated, as the Day of Deliverance…. It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations… from this Time forward forever more.” So fireworks (“illuminations”) are part of the patriotic commemoration.

There’s just one problem: Adams sent his letter to Abigail on July 3, which was the day after the resolution of independence was passed, “The Second Day of July 1776.” That was “independence day.” What happened on July 4 was just the approval of the wording of the commonly read declaration. Those complaining about the old fireworks in A Capitol Fourth didn’t seem to care that the actual 240th anniversary of U.S. independence occurred two days earlier.

Television at the New York World's Fair in 1939The history of television technology is more obscure than the history of the United States, but it, too, has its erroneous myths and legends.  Years before all-electronic television was “introduced” at the New York World’s Fair in 1939, for example, it had already been broadcast in London.  Long before that, the first regularly scheduled television news broadcasts began in Schenectady, New York, using so-called “mechanical” scanning. Philo Farnsworth demonstrated the first scanned, all-electronic television system, but even that idea was published much earlier by someone else. And, if the term “scanned” is dropped, the first crude all-electronic television images were seen no later than 1879 (though the word television wasn’t coined until 1900).

Big Bain patentWhen did television start? It’s really impossible to say. It depends on definitions of television and start, among other things. The concept of scanning for image transmission was patented in 1843 by Alexander Bain, which the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences recognized with an Emmy award this year. That’s one important principle of television. Even more important, perhaps, is the concept of converting variations in light intensity into an electronic video signal—opto-electronic transduction.

Few television histories mention the discovery of a photoelectric effect by 19-year-old Edmond Becquerel in 1839. That’s actually as it should be. Although Becquerel’s discovery was published at the time in major scientific journals, no one seemed to know what do do with it. When Becquerel, himself, demonstrated an electrical image transmission system to the French Academy of Sciences two decades later, he did not suggest any optical input for it; the images had to be drawn in insulating ink on a conductive surface.

AgamemnonMany television histories mention Joseph May, Willoughby Smith, and George R. Carey, and all are significant but not necessarily for who they supposedly were, what they are said to have done, or when they allegedly did it. May has been called an Irish telegraph clerk. That description probably stems from a report in Nature of a lecture given by Charles William Siemens to the Royal Institution of London in 1876—a very important talk. According to the report, knowledge of the photoconductivity of selenium was the result “of an observation made first by Mr. May, a telegraph clerk at Valentia,” Ireland. Siemens did attribute the observation to May and did put it in Valentia, but he never called him a clerk.

In fact, May, who had previously served as an assistant to the “electrician” (what we would today call electrical engineer) in charge of the laying of the first transatlantic telegraph cable, was in 1866 put in charge of the electrical department of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (Telcon) at the factory in Greenwich, England, where the second transatlantic cable had been manufactured. During the laying of the first cable, May served on the cable ship Agamemnon; for the second, he was at the European terminus in Valentia, while his boss, Willoughby Smith, served on the cable ship Great Eastern.

Willoughby Smith imageAfter the failure of the first cable, Smith was charged with ensuring the health of the second. A cable—even one made of copper—thousands of kilometers long has a high resistance, so Smith wanted a comparably resistive material for making his measurements. After trying layers of tinfoil separated by gelatine and finding the combination unstable, Smith decided to try crystalline selenium.

We might never know why Siemens attributed the discovery of selenium’s photoconductivity to May. Those who attribute it to Smith can use his own writing as a reference. “In my experiments with this substance, I was at first sorely puzzled” about its changing resistance, he wrote. “On investigation, this proved to be owing to the resistance of selenium being affected by the slightest variation in the rays of light falling upon it.”

They were his experiments, because he designed them. But he had his staff conduct them. According to the most recently available information, the discovery was actually made in 1872 by Telcon worker John E. Mayhew at the company’s facility at Enderby Wharf, Greenwich, where the company, its predecessors, and its successors have continuously been manufacturing underwater cables since 1857 (and, for six years before that, next door). It is currently operating as Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Networks (below). Mayhew informed May who informed Smith of the discovery.

Telcon today

Smith deserves his place in television histories. Not only did he choose to test selenium and design experiments to prove its photoconductivity (as opposed to, say, sensitivity to heat or current), but he also chose to inform the world about it. On February 4, 1873, he sent a letter to Latimer Clark, a colleague in the Society of Telegraph Engineers (today the Institution of Engineering and Technology), and asked him to read it at a society meeting. It set off almost a chain reaction as scientists and engineers tried to prove or disprove Smith’s findings.

One of those was Werner von Siemens, William’s brother. On February 18, 1876, almost exactly three years after Smith’s findings were reported, William gave that fateful lecture to the Royal Institution about his brother’s work. And, at the end of it, he showed something that precipitated the advent of television research. But Siemens appears in almost no television history. The reason might be an article about television published in Discovery magazine in 1928.

1912 Campbell SwintonThe article was written by Alan Archibald Campbell Swinton, the person who described all-electronic scanned television in Nature in 1908 before Philo Farnsworth was two years old. It began with a short history, which included a mention of the television experiments of George R. Carey of Boston, possibly the first person to use the word camera to describe an electronic device. And it said Carey’s work was in 1875. If so, the 1876 Siemens lecture couldn’t possibly have influenced him.

The 1875 date was erroneous and was debunked by the great television historian George Shiers in his paper “Historical Notes on Television Before 1900,” which appeared in the SMPTE Journal in March 1977. Perhaps it had been dictated, and a nine was misheard as a five; the earliest published information on Carey’s work was in 1879. But recently his unpublished, but witnessed, notebooks were acquired by The Karpeles Manuscript Library Museums. Through their courtesy, below are two images from Carey’s notebooks. The first is dated January 1877, which is the earliest known date for television research. The second mentions as the source of his inspiration an article on page 374 of the December 9, 1876 issue of Scientific American.

Carey date

Carey idea

What was the subject of that article? It was something shown at the end of the Siemens lecture. “Before concluding,” he said, “I wish to introduce to your notice a little apparatus, which I have prepared to illustrate the extraordinary sensitiveness of my brother’s selenium preparations and an analogy between its action and that of the retina of our eye.” With that introduction, Siemens showed a device with a selenium “retina,” lens, and even “eyelids.” “Here we have then an artificial eye, which is sensible to light and to differences of color, which shows the phenomenon of fatigue if intense light is allowed to act for a length of time, and from which it recovers again by repose in keeping the eyelids closed.”

Artificial EyeAt best, it was a one-pixel camera, but the idea of even that in 1876 was so extraordinary that it was picked up by journals, newspapers, and magazines around the world, from The Great Bend Weekly Tribune in Kansas to the Bruce Herald in New Zealand. It might be the single most-famous invention you’d never heard of. And Carey wasn’t the only person inspired to begin television research based on that lecture. Adriano de Paiva in Portugal and Constantin Senlecq in France also mentioned the Siemens eye, as did still-picture-transmission researcher Carlo Perosino in Italy. Whether it was called an artificial eye, occhio selenico, œil artificiel, ojo artificial, or olho artificial, it appeared in reports of much of the early television research. Prior to 1877, there does not appear to be a single mention of anything that could be considered a video camera, not even in fantasy or fiction; in 1877, at least eight people, in multiple countries, on both sides of the Atlantic, began work on or mentioned something like it.

The Siemens artificial eye might not have been television’s start, but it certainly got the ball rolling.

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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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