Three Centuries of Television

Originally published in Videography July 2003

Did you see the latest technology at a recent trade show?  Might it have been developed in the 19th century?

Panasonic and Sony introduced advanced video concepts at April’s National Association of Broadcasters show, each hyping its system and disparaging the other’s. At last month’s InfoComm, the brick-sized InFocus LP120 and the ultra-short-throw NEC WT600 projectors were among the hottest new exhibits. In short, videography today seems to be repeating the 19th century.

In 1942, a book called 4,000 Years of Television appeared. It had the endorsement of high-ranking officials in government and industry, but the title was more than a little misleading. It was based on the already-century-old discovery by a British archaeologist of a lens-shaped piece of rock crystal in the ruins of ancient Assyria. TV cameras use lenses, the Assyrians flourished in the second millennium B.C., and 1942 was in the second millennium A.D., thus 4,000 Years of Television.

Unfortunately, the crystal was actually found in a much younger location and has since been dated to between 721 and 705 B.C. Furthermore, it was both faceted and had internal defects, making it fine for an ornament but lousy for a lens. In any case, even the discovery of an ancient lens would hardly justify the existence of television back then.

The title of this article is misleading only if one takes “three centuries” to mean 300 years. If the three centuries are the 21st, the 20th, and the 19th, the title is actually accurate. Many educators, scientists, and inventors worked hard specifically on the development of videography in the last quarter of the 19th century, although the word television, itself, wasn’t coined until the century’s last year, 1900 (see sidebar “What’s in a Name?”).

That doesn’t even count the enabling technologies that came earlier in the 19th century. After physician Peter Mark Roget (of thesaurus fame) lectured on the persistence of vision in 1824, the first toys to take advantage of the phenomenon began to appear. A disk might have had a bird cage depicted on one side and a bird on the other; when it was twirled, the bird would appear to be in the cage.

In 1827, Charles Wheatstone came up with image scanning, and the following year Joseph Plateau came up with the Anorthoscope, the first motion-picture device. Meanwhile, the first photograph is generally acknowledged to have been taken by 1826.

The invention of the electric telegraph in the early 19th century is common knowledge; the invention of facsimile transmission by mid-century is less well known. By 1868, 110 faxes per hour could be sent between Paris and Lyons, some of them ornate and flowery pictures. In fewer than ten more years, people would also be sending voice through wires via telephones.

The last element required for the visual portion of television was something that could convert images from light to electricity. Photoconductivity was accidentally discovered in the course of laying the second transatlantic telegraph cable, and it was reported by Willoughby Smith in Nature in 1873.

With photography, image scanning, motion pictures, image transmission (by fax), electronic sound transmission, and photoconductivity all known by 1876, videography seemed inevitable. The mere appearance of words like “photophone” and “telephonoscope” associated with the inventors Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison created a frenzy of work on television, even though Bell and Edison had nothing of the sort in mind (see sidebar “Fool Circle”).

By 1877, at least four people, George Carey in Boston, William Edward Sawyer in New York, Constantin Senlecq in Adres, France, and Adriano de Paiva in Oporto, Portugal, came up with different schemes for the electronic transmission of live moving pictures. De Paiva published an article on the subject (which he called the electric telescope) the following year and a book on it in 1880.

None of these people were crackpots. Carey was a civil engineer, Sawyer an electrical engineer, Senlecq a lawyer, and de Paiva a professor of physics.

They were followed by Denis Redmond in Dublin, William Edward Ayrton and John Perry in London, Maurice Leblanc in Paris, and inventors in eastern and western Pennsylvania by 1880. Paul Nipkow, a 23-year-old physics student in Berlin, applied for the basic patent on television scanning (dividing sequences into frames and frames into scanning lines) in 1884. It was issued the following year.

That was by no means the end of video research and development in the 19th century. Atkinson, Bakhmet’ev, Bidwell, Blondin, Brillouin, Connelly, D’Unger, Dussaud, Jenkins, Le Pontois, Licks, Liesegang, Lucas, Majorana, McTighe, Middleton, Morse (not the telegraph one), Nystrom, Perosino, Plessner, Polumordvinov, Schoffler, Sutton, Szczepanik, Vol’fke, and Weiller are just some of those we know were working on the subject in Austria, Australia, England, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain, Sweden, and the U.S. Atkinson, Ayrton, and Perry later served as presidents of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Jenkins founded the organization we know today as SMPTE.

Why aren’t they more famous? No doubt one problem was that a recognizable video image of a human face wouldn’t appear until 1925. Another was their names. Adriano de Paiva de Faria Leite Brandao is a mouthful, and Szczepanik doesn’t even look pronounceable.

Jan Szczepanik was born in what we would today call Poland. Like Leblanc and Polumordvinov, he offered full color imagery. Unlike the obscure other inventors, he was associated with much publicity and hype. Sony has had such celebrities as Jay Leno and George Lucas at its recent press conferences; Szczepanik had Mark Twain calling him “the Austrian Edison.”

In July 1898, in the American Monthly Review of Reviews, one could read, “It has been left to Jan Szczepanik to startle the world with the apparatus by which objects in the natural colors can be seen hundreds of miles away.” On the other hand, the more skeptical Electrical Engineer titled one piece on Szczepanik “Great Gooseberries in March” and another “Next Please.” They said, “We wonder the correspondent survived the introduction to a gentleman with such a name,” and “…we suppose that Herr Szczepanik will next, by the aid of his financial partner, find that water is wet.”

According to the favorable press, Szczepanik was offered some six million French francs (close to $25 million today) by the Central Commission of the 1900 Paris World’s Fair to exhibit his Telectroscope there; Electrical Engineer said it never even heard of such a commission. The apparatus did not appear in Paris.

What did appear in Paris in 1900 was an advertisement that speculated on life in the year 2000. It showed a video projector about the size and shape of the new InFocus LP120 with the ultra-short throw of the new NEC WT600. We almost made it.


What’s in a Name?

Imagine coming home and announcing an intention to relax while watching a little ‘phane. It might have been.

Henry Sutton called his 1890 image-transmission system, “devised at Ballarat, Victoria,” Australia, the telephane. Had he been successful, the famous publication might be called TP Guide.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the earliest reference for the word videography is the first issue of the publication you are now reading. Also according to the O.E.D. (the original edition), telephote was both a noun and a verb “for the electric transmission of pictures.” The earliest reference listed is the 1880 description in Engineering magazine of the system of videography invented (unusually) by the Pittsburgh patent lawyers, Connelly Brothers & McTighe.

In the late 19th century, artificial eye, diaphote, electric telescope, electroscope, elektrisches teleskop, elektrische fernsehen, fernsehen, phoroscope, phototel, phototelegraph, telectroscope, teleoscope, telephot, and even, in what must surely have been a typographical error (in the New York Sun), telescopopohone were applied to the technology of transmitting moving pictures by electricity (and Maximilian Plessner proposed calling a video recorder a hyaloscope). Telectroscope was most commonly used.

Then, at the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900, Constantin Perskyi, a professor of electricity at the Artillery Academy of St. Petersburg, Russia, reported on the latest developments in the field. Either he, or the reporter who covered his speech and got the names wrong, first referred to the recent developments in electronic image capture and display as television, and the name stuck.

The tele- is from the Greek for distance, and -vision is derived from the Latin for seeing. “Television?” opined C. P. Scott, editor of The Manchester Guardian. “The word is half-Greek and half-Latin. No good can come of it.”


Fool Circle

Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Alva Edison were two greats whose work changed the world. They may also have been responsible for videography, but not because they actually invented anything specific to the field.

Bell filed a sealed specification for something called the photophone. In 1877, a report in the French journal L’Anee Scientifique et Industrielle said he had succeeded in transmitting images through a telectroscope (a common name then used for video equipment or systems).

At roughly the same time, Edison announced that he was working on a telephonoscope. A depiction of it as a two-way videophone appeared in a British publication late in 1878. The eminent electrical engineers William Edward Ayrton and John Perry, who advanced television by proposing the electronic light valve for video projection, said the 1878 drawing had influenced them.

Inventors around the world raced to perfect videography before Bell and Edison could beat them to the punch. There was just one small problem. Neither Bell nor Edison had yet dealt in any way with videography.

Bell’s photophone was revealed in 1880 to be an invention intended simply for the transmission of sound carried by light. Edison’s telephonoscope was just an elaborate pair of non-electronic ear trumpets, intended to allow a user to hear distant sounds. The scope part of the word probably came from Edison’s first drawing of the device, which showed it mounted on a tripod like a telescope.

After the furious period of video invention sparked by the false reports, Bell finally lectured on the subject of electronic image transmission, and Edison announced at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair that he was “at work at an invention which will enable a man at Wall Street not only to telephone to a friend near Central Park but to actually see that friend while speaking to him.”

Was that to be a videophone? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it was just a form of telescope. Edison said it could never work between Paris and New York if only due to the earth’s curvature.

It’s best not to jump to conclusions. The influential 1878 telephonoscope drawing appeared in the humor periodical Punch next to one depicting “Edison’s anti-gravitation under-clothing.”


Old Flames

In the digital light processing (DLP) “engines” of those latest InFocus and NEC projectors, hundreds of thousands of microscopic mirrors vibrate back and forth thousands of times a second to control the light reaching the screen. In plasma panels, bursts of ultra-violet radiation cause phosphors to emit light.

Over the years, many different techniques have been used to create pictures electronically. In the General Electric Talaria projectors, electron beams deformed an oil film, creating a diffraction grating controlling the light on the screen. RCA once proposed a plastic reflector to be deformed by an electron beam; Hughes and JVC addressed liquid crystals with electron beams. Magnavox had a system involving electromagnetic rotation of millions of microscopic balls; Xerox’s balls rotated electrostatically.

It shouldn’t be strange, therefore, that the television systems developed in the 19th century used interesting mechanisms for their displays. Denis Redmond’s glowing platinum wires seem today better suited to making toast than pictures. Adriano de Paiva’s moving incandescent point might have appeared to be more like a sparkler than a TV monitor.

William Edward Ayrton and John Perry proposed clattering shutters, one per pixel. William Sawyer offered a rotating spark gap. Henry Sutton’s display used light from a log-cabin-style oil lamp.

One of Maurice Leblanc’s systems anticipated the picture tube; George Morse came up with something more akin to the plasma panel. Like Texas Instruments (where DLP was invented), Louis Marcel Brillouin suggested a mirror for light control (others used mirrors for scanning).
Then there were the systems devised by Llewelyn Birchall Atkinson, Leon Le Pontois, and Jean Lazare Weiller, all of which used “manometric” modulators. In other words, the video signal controlled the amount of gas reaching a flame.

Sitcom producers must lament the fact that today’s audiences watch picture tubes, LCDs, plasma panels, or projectors based on tube, liquid-crystal, or DLP technology. If only viewers had manometric displays, no matter what was on, it would be a gas.


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