Friday, February 10, 2017

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 Wednesday'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. Hot lights faced at you have to be one of the worse things to be under but to have their faces in the spot light has to be far worse! I just found this stage, this topic to be very humbling to see the very early stage of television. This is never something mentioned in mainstream television. Whenever a history type short film/commercial pops up on television you might see I love Lucy or... some other classic show which would lead to today's shows to show the advancement in technology and time. But something like this is never shown. I've seen the early stages of video games and film, heard about the early stages of music and the computer but I always assumed television had a great entrance. So learning about this and the process they went through was very eye opening which was something vastly different than what I had thought of the previous medias we went over this semester.

  2. When you think about it every great invention has its humble beginning. I originally thought those early Le Prince films weren't much to study. But when you think of the time, effort and determination to make even a few frames of film, we own these early innovators like Le Prince a debt of gratitude. Even in my own industry of medical imaging, as taxing as it can be trying to obtain the best images on patients who have been involved in serious traumas, or who are unable move in the certain positions necessary to take the proper x-ray, my job is nothing compared to what it was a hundred years ago. The exposures today are taken in milliseconds. The processing of the images is pretty much instantaneous. We no longer need to print out hundreds of films, since all images are viewed on computer monitors. And since we now know of the potential hazards of ionizing radiation, we are better equipped to protect ourselves so we do not perish at a young age from cancer. We have made strides in medicine, technology and movie making, and we only have our predecessors to thank for it. If you were to view the early glass plate hanging in my office of an x-ray of two coins taken in 1890, you wouldn’t postulate that this tool would aid in the healing and saving of countless lives in the future.

  3. These are like cave paintings. Man’s earliest attempts to capture himself and his life, and preserve it. While not exactly 4K TV quality, it is significant because it shows that it can be done. Once that bridge is crossed, it becomes evolution, not revolution. It did spark a revolution. A dominant communication form after live speech is certainly video. Even YouTube (the opiate of the masses, along with FaceBook) started with dubious quality. the video was passable and the audio was offensive, quality wise. In time both of those aspects advanced and improved. I suspect in a few years the quality of streaming audio/video will be improving even more dramatically. Like many inventions, the prototypes pulled back the curtain of the possible even if they did not yet have a very sophisticated result. These videos represent a turning point in the history of modern communication.
    -Tony Ricci