Thursday, February 13, 2014

Ghosts in the Machine: Early Television from 1928

The image to the left is a single frame from the earliest known television recording of a human face, made by the inventor John Logie Baird. The subject, a Mr. Wally Fowlkes, was a young lab assistant undistinguished save by his willingness to sit for lengthy periods under the bright, hot lights required to make television recordings. And, amazingly, these recordings were made almost entirely using mechanical means -- a giant disc with glass lenses was linked directly to a Columbia Records turntable equipped with a cutting stylus -- and predate any electronic images of humans by several years! They were preserved on discs that look much like audio recordings, and the frequency of the image data is so low that, if played through speakers, a sound in the audible range is produced. Indeed, Baird claimed that he could distinguish, just by listening to them, a recording of a face from say, a recording of a pair of scissors or a soccer ball. Baird called his process Phonovision, and although he abandoned it as offering too brief, and posing too many technical obstacles, it was nevertheless the first system of recorded television in history.

These recordings were little-known until a few years ago, when recording engineer Donald McLean collected several of them, and transferred their analog signal into digital form. Once this was done, he was able to correct for all kinds of problems that plagued Baird's engineers -- mechanical resonance ("rumble"), pops and scratches on the disc, speed irregularities, and problems with frame registration. The earliest recordings are still quite primitive, but one can at least recognize the faces.

Even more remarkably, in addition to these laboratory discs, there exist home recordings, made using "Silvatone" aluminum discs (one of these was referenced recently in The King's Speech). Silvatone discs used a heavy, weighted cutting stylus, and could record any sort of signal, whether of the human voice or a radio broadcast. And, due to the relatively low frequency of the signal, they could be used to record television broadcasts as well. During the brief period from the late 1920's through to the early 1930's, when Baird was able to send out television signals with the BBC's co-operation, a number of amateur recordings were made; these, too, have been restored by Mr. Mclean. There are about a half-dozen different snippets: dancing girls (of course!), a marionette show, and a singer by the name of Betty Bolton. McLean actually located Miss Bolton, by then 92 years old, and she was able to personally identify herself as the subject of the recording!

During this era -- in 1930 -- the BBC broadcast the very first television drama, an adaptation of Pirandello's play "The Man with a Flower in his Mouth." Although this does not survive, there is a re-enacted version, using the exact same script, the original music and title cards, and an identical 30-line Baird camera system -- you can watch it here, along with comments on the original broadcast and the recreation.

Mr. McLean has kindly permitted me to show his restored original Baird recordings to you -- but in class only -- as he is concerned to protect his rights in the restored versions. So look for some haunting images at Tuesday's class!

SIDEBAR: Here's a chart I've prepared showing the relative frequency and bandwidth of television signals, from the days of the Baird discs to HDTV.

ADDITIONAL LINKS: The excellent Television History site, a film of the 1936 Radiolympia demonstration broadcast as well as the High-def opening ceremony later that year. Both feature versions of the commissioned theme song, with its curious lyrics:
A mighty maze, of mystic, magic rays
Is all about us in the blue
And in sight and sound they trace
Living pictures out of space
To bring this enchantment to you ...
Here also you can see a modern 32-line mechanical TV in action; a 1938 Nazi TV station ident (they named the station after Paul Nipkow, inventor of the Nipkow disc, so as to claim TV as an "Aryan" invention); and lastly, a TV advert for Dumont TV featuring Wally Cox, later a "Hollywood Squares" regular and voice of Underdog.

1 comment:

  1. I found it amazing that not only Baird but others had the same notion of transmitting images through the air like radio waves is astounding. Obviously the first television images were quite crude, but the speed with which technology improved was remarkable. I also never realized early television was mechanical.

    Although often panned today (since much of the programming nowadays is awful) television has also remarkable in its ability as a medium to broadcast events happening "live" throughout the world. For example, how many people recount learning of the Kennedy assassination from Walter Cronkite? Or who can forget CNN's coverage of missiles exploding during the bombing of Baghdad? Reginald Denny being hauled from his truck and beaten during the LA riots? Moments like these are engrained in our memories.

    I don't know if it was the early television pioneer's intension, but seeing how other cultures live probably helped diffuse tensions, like the Cold War, as viewers gained a better understanding of worldwide political issues. The airing such events has certainly brought upon social changes. This unintended effect would surely make its inventors proud.

    ReplyDelete