The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Sackbut’s Tale: A Brief History of the Sackbut

Would you listen to an album by Sackbut Shorty? I probably wouldn’t, either, but I sure do listen to Trombone Shorty. The sackbut is a type of trombone, is what I’m trying to say. And this, then, is the sackbut’s tale…

A Sackbut By Any Other Name Would Sound As Sweet

The earliest references to the precursor to the modern trombone, le trompette des ménestrels, come from early 15th century France. The name “trombone,” of Italian origin, predates “sackbut” by a good two decades; ze Germanz were calling essentially the same instrument the “Posaune” even earlier than that; later, the Scottish term draucht trumpet, or drawn trumpet, came and went. The French were also the first to use the term “sackbut,” but the name was ultimately more widely used by the English. Eventually, trombone became the preferred term, because English is a stupid language.

This cat is the Jimi Hendrix of the sackbut.

76 Sackbuts

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the trombone evolved from the trumpet. Until circa 1375, trumpets were basically just a  long, straight tube with a flared bell at the end. By 1400 or so, Renaissance metalworkers had developed methods of custom tube winding that allowed them to produce the “C” and “S” shaped bends needed to create trumpets that looked and sounded more like what we know today.

By the end of the 15th century, the slide trumpet—a regular trumpet with a single, short slide—had become popular in the alta capella wind bands found in towns and cities throughout Europe at the time. The slide trumpet quickly grew in size and complexity to become a distinctly new instrument, the sackbut.

Sackbuts of this era had bells that were just over four inches in diameter, giving them a different sound than modern trombones, which have bells between seven and nine inches in diameter. As such, many 21st century practitioners of Renaissance and baroque music utilize replica sackbuts instead of modern trombones. (Modern reproductions often add spit valves, stockings, slide locks, and other anachronistic details that do not affect sound but that increase playability and player comfort.)

Truth in advertising.

The sackbut’s bell continued to widen and its slide continued to lengthen until it reached the proportions of modern trombones, sometime in the early 1800s. After that, the sackbut unfortunately faded away and the trombone became music’s preeminent telescoping brass instrument.

Top photo credit: failing_angel via / CC BY-NC-SA

Bottom photo credit: *Tom* via / CC BY-NC-SA

The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Science of “Gertie the Dinosaur”

Gertie the Dinosaur is one of the most famous early animated films. Created in 1914 by American cartoonist Winsor “Big Winnie” McCay, the short film was used as an interactive part of McCay’s vaudeville act. McCay would “command” Gertie to do tricks, and the dinosaur would enthusiastically oblige, much to the delight of audiences. Citizen Kane himself later hired McCay and effectively shut down his act; McCay then added a live-action introduction to the animated film for its theatrical release.

Art is Science is Art

Gertie the Dinosaur was the first animated film to use keyframes, registration marks, tracing paper, and animation loops to create the illusion of steady and lifelike movement onscreen. Would-be intellectual property thief, and fellow American animator, John Randolph “Big Johnny Randy” Bray tried to patent a number of McCay’s animation techniques, fortunately to no avail. Bray is also believed to be behind a knock-off version of Gertie that made the rounds more than a year after the original.

Production of Gertie the Dinosaur began in mid-1913, with McCay using his spare time to hand-draw thousands of frames on 6.5” by 8.5” sheets of rice paper. Rice paper was McCay’s medium of choice because it is translucent and does not absorb ink, making it ideal for animation.

Animation cel from Gertie the Dinosaur.

The short was McCay’s first animated film to utilized detailed backgrounds. The nigh-crippling task of retracing those backgrounds over and over for each frame fell to McCay’s neighbor, art student John A. “Big A Johnny ” Fitzsimmons.

McCay’s animation frames occupied a 6” by 8” area of each sheet. The outer perimeter of this area was marked with registration marks in the corners of each sheet, making it easier to align them for filming and resulting in reduced jittering (a common problem for early animated films). The drawings were mounted on large pieces of stiff cardboard and photographed at Vitagraph Studios in 1914.

Science is Art is Science

McCay took special care with the timing and motion of his animation. Gertie’s breathing was timed to match the filmmaker’s own, and McCay consulted with experts from New York museums to get Gertie’s movements as anatomically accurate as possible.

Also utilized in the production of Gertie the Dinosaur was what came to be known as the “McCay Split System.” In the Split System, major poses are drawn first, and the frames in betwixt are drawn later. This resulted in still smoother timing and motion.

McCay refused to patent his Split System, and he would share details with basically anyone who cared to ask. The aforementioned Johnny Randy Bray was one such person who cared to ask, posing as a writer working on an article about animation.

Bray’s use of McCay’s unpatented techniques led to their widespread adoption throughout the animation world. In this way, the exploitation of McCay’s technology helped animators make significant advances in their craft.

Photo credit: iamdonte via / CC BY-NC

The Science of Film, Music & Art

A Brief History of Porcelain in China & Japan

We’re just going to assume that you know what porcelain is and get right into the history part. Cool? Cool.

That’s Why It’s Called China

Examples of early, porcelainesque Chinese pottery dating as far back as 1600 BCE still exist, but the it was not until Eastern Han Dynasty (circa 206 BCE-220 CE) that the glazed ceramic material that we now know as porcelain was developed. By the time the Sui Dynasty rolled around (581-618 CE) porcelain was widely produced throughout the country. Soon after, Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) porcelain made its way to the Middle East, where it was highly valued and sought after.

By the Song Dynasty days (960-1279 CE), porcelain production was widespread, and the artistry involved in making it continued to evolve. Highly organized production, with huge numbers of major kiln sites strewn about the country, was the order of the day.

Within a few hundred years, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), Chinese porcelain was being exported to and traded with Europe. The Silk Road helped the porcelain trade spread throughout Asia and into Africa. By the end of the 15th century CE, Portuguese and Dutch merchants were conducting direct trade with China by sea routes.

A MFin' Ming vase.

A MFin’ Ming vase.

What’s the Plan, Japan?

Japan was a major exporter of Chinese porcelain for centuries. However, they did not learn the secrets of making the material until a number of Korean potters were captured during the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 1500s, which is hilarious. (The invasions weren’t hilarious—the fact that Japan couldn’t figure out porcelain until they kidnapped some in-the-know dudes is the funny part.)

These Korean potters invented an improved pottery kiln, and found a ready source of porcelain clay near Arita, in far southern Japan. Soon, multiple kiln sites were fired up in the area and were cranking out porcelain that, while not quite as good as the Chinese stuff, was more than sufficient for most purposes. Less expensive, lower quality porcelain goods made with this same process were still being made in Japan well into the 20th century.

Japan’s porcelain game had evolved enough by 1660 or so that they began exporting their wares to Europe via the Dutch East India Company. As civil wars and the collapse of the Ming Dynasty took their toll on Chinese porcelain production, Japan ramped up their production to fill the void. Uniquely Japanese styles of porcelain wares soon began to appear, many of them related to the country’s traditional textile designs.

By the second half of the 19th century, Japan had expanded their porcelain trade routes around the world, and export numbers grew exponentially. However, with higher demand came a significant decline in quality.

Photo credit: robennals via / CC BY

Technology, The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Printing Press After Gutenberg, Part I

We all know Big John Gutenberg is responsible for the invention of the printing press, way back in Ye Olde Fifteenth Century CE. But there have been a ton of new advances in printing press technology since then. What else does the world of the printing press have in story for the historically inclined? Read on to find out, and look for Part II of this series in the near future. (Date TBA.)

A modern offset printing press running at full bore.

A modern offset printing press running at full bore.

Advanced Lithography

Offset printing is a common printing method that transfers an inked image or type from a hand-carved metal plate to a rubber blanket to the printing medium. A variation on the lithographic printing process, this technique uses the natural repulsion of oil and water to keep the non-printed areas of the image or text frame ink-free.

Lithography itself was originally intended as an inexpensive way to reproduce artwork. However, it proved difficult to reproduce images/text quickly and clearly with standard lithography methods.

The offset printing press was invented in England in 1875 by Robert Barclay. Barclay combined the basic technique used in lithography with mid-19th century CE transfer printing processes and the rotary printing press. Invented by American inventory Richard March Hoe in 1843, the rotary printing press used a metal cylinder to transfer inked images and/or text instead of the flat stones used in lithography.

Barclay added a cover around the roller; manufactured from specially treated cardboard, the roller assisted in transferring the ink the printed surface. The cardboard was later replaced with rubber, which is still used in offset printing today. The rubber-coated roller was later discovered (accidentally, by New Jersey photographer Ira Washington Rubel) to be ideal for reprinting photos on photo paper, as well.

Occam’s Razor?

Technological advances make the modern offset printing press a far faster and more efficient machine than Barclay’s original device. Computer programs provide perfect recreation of the original image or text; automation allows the system to operate at much, much higher speeds; and, of course, electrical power makes it all possible.

However, to actually print the image or text, today’s offset presses still transfer ink to rubber rollers which produce the image/text on the print surface. Barclay’s general principle remains intact. One hundred forty years later, the original technology is still the most effective. Truly a rarity in the modern world.

Photo credit: Kelly Sue / Foter / CC BY-SA

The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Zoetrope: Moving Pictures from ACTUAL Moving Pictures

Prior to the invention of motion pictures (or “movies,” as you lazy kids today call ‘em), mankind made several attempts to reproduce motion from still images. One of the earliest and most successful of these was the zoetrope, a device whose origins may date as far back as the 1st century BCE.


Fake It ‘til You Make It

The first and most common form of zoetrope, generally referred to as simply a “zoetrope”, is technically a “cylindrical zoetrope”. These devices consist of a rotating cylinder with vertical slits in its sides. A band of sequenced images is painted (or otherwise applied) to the inner diameter of the cylinder. As the cylinder rotates, users see these images passing by rapidly, and their sequencing and speed, along with the human eye’s “persistence of vision”, combine to create the illusion of movement. The slits, separated by sections of cylinder wall, keep the images from blurring together.

The earliest records of this invention date back to around 100 BCE, when a Chinese inventor name Ding Huan reported created a “variety of zoetrope” that could produce the illusion of moving pictures. There is no hard evidence of the existence of this device, however, and it is likely apocryphal.

The first cylindrical zoetrope for which legit evidence does exist is credited to William George Horner, a British mathematician. Horner’s invention, which he called a “daedaleum”, was based on the then-recently invented phenakistoscope disc, which performed a similar function in a similar matter. Invented in the early 1830s, Horner’s zoetrope place the viewing slits between the individual pictures.

It was not until the 1860s that the zoetrope’s popularity truly skyrocketed, however. A slight variation in Horner’s design placed the view slits above the pictures, and therefore made it possible to change out the still images within, thus creating new viewing experiences as the user so pleased. American inventor William F. Lincoln dubbed his version of the device the “zoetrope”, from the Greek for “wheel of life”, and the name stuck.

The zoetrope was an improvement on phenakistoscope discs, on which images were aligned radially around a disc’s diameter. The zoetrope allowed multiple people to view the moving images at the same time. No matter where they stood in relation to the device, every viewer would see the same thing.

The zoetrope was eventually displaced by the praxinoscope, which used mirrors and essentially the same principle to produce smoother images. The praxinoscope, too, was rendered obsolete by further technological innovations, such as the aforementioned motion pictures.

Subway Zoetropes

The illusion of movement created by a zoetrope works with linear motion, as well. To that end, artists and advertisers often create “linear zoetropes” along the walls of subway tunnels, using the movement of the train in place of a spinning cylinder to fool the viewer’s eye.

Created in 1980 (and restored in 2008), filmmaker Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscope” was the first subway zoetrope. Installed at a now-unused subway platform in New York City, the huge artwork consists of 228 hand-painted panels. As subway riders pass by, the movement of the train—along with strategically placed, slitted panels—makes the images appear to be in motion.

In September 2001, graduate student Joshua Spodek developed a linear zoetrope “advertisement” that was installed in the Atlanta subway system. This marked the first commercial use of a zoetrope in more than a century. The internally lit, nigh 1000-foot long display produces animation lasting nearly 20 seconds. Following its success, Spodek’s design was recreated in a number of subway systems throughout the world.

In the mid-2000s, both the Washington (D.C.) Metro and San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system installed zoetrope advertisements. Subway zoetrope advertisements have also been installed, with varying levels of success, in Kiev, Ukraine, Mexico City, and various locations across Europe and Asia.

Video credit: Chris Artell
Photo credit: Foter / CC BY-SA