The Science of Film, Music & Art, World-Changing Inventions

The Spirit of Radio

Radio has played a huge role in human history and is all but unescapable in modern life. Even if you don’t listen to the radio—which is understandable, since what’s being played on it is almost uniformly terrible—chances are good you’ve got at least one radio-ready device somewhere. (Like in your car, for example.) Radio is one of those inventions that now seems like it’s always been around, as if it were just a part of the world since the dawn of time. However, this world-changing device had a long and ramshackle history before a single word was broadcast.

Like most things, old-timey radios look way cooler than their modern counterparts.

Like most things, old-timey radios look way cooler than their modern counterparts.

“Wireless Telegraphy” & Electromagnetism

Experiments with wireless communication first began in the 1830s. Researchers started with “wireless telegraphy,” or the transmission of electric telegraphy (telegraph) signals without the use of wires. These scientific trials used inductive and capacitive induction and transmission to send signals through the ground, water, and along train tracks. Though it did work, it was soon discovered that this form of communication was limited in its range, and could not transmit signals far enough to be of any practical use.

By the mid-1870s, Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell had proven mathematically that electromagnetic waves could propagate through free space, making good on the theory he put forth in his A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism. His theory united a number of previously unrelated observations, equations, and experiments on electricity and magnetism (as well as optics) into a single, consistent theory.

Maxwell’s equations—now known as “Maxwell’s Equations”—proved that electricity, magnetism, and light are all part of the electromagnetic field. These equations remain the basis of all radio design, though Maxwell himself had no involvement in further radio research or invention.

Hughes & Hertz

As far as historians can tell, the first intentional transmission of a signal via electromagnetic waves was part of an experiment by Anglo-American inventor and professor David Edward Hughes, circa 1880. Through a series of trial-and-error experiments a year earlier, Hughes had developed a portable telephone device that could pick up “aerial waves” as much as 500 yards from their source.

Hughes demonstrated his technology to representatives of London’s Royal Society, including Sir George Gabriel Stokes, the famed mathematician, physicist, and Cambridge professor. Stokes posited that Hughes’ device operated on electromagnetic induction rather than conduction through the air. Having no background in physics himself, Hughes apparently accepted Stokes’ observation as truth and did not pursue further experiments.

Working off of Maxwell’s theory in the late 1880s, German physicist Heinrich Hertz conducted a series of experiments that proved it. Hertz developed a method by which radio waves (known as “Hertzian waves” at the time) could be intentionally transmitted through free space by a spark-gap device—basically an antenna—and detected over short distances.

By altering the inductance and capacitance of his transmitting and receiving antennae, Hertz was able to gain a modicum of control over the frequencies of radiated waves. Using a corner reflector and parabolic reflector, he was able to focus electromagnetic waves, thus demonstrating that radio waves behaved in the same manner as light waves, just as Maxwell has postulated some 20 years prior.

Despite his successes, Hertz never developed a practical way to utilize electromagnetic waves. In fact, he saw no value in such technology. “It’s of no use whatsoever,” he told students at the University of Bonn. “This is just an experiment that proves Maestro Maxwell was right.” Hertz died in 1894, not long before radio became practical and commercially viable.

Stuck A Feather in His Hat & Called It Marconi

That same year, Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi set out to build a commercial wireless telegraphy system utilizing Hertzian waves. Building off of the work of Hughes, Hertz, and others, Marconi developed new devices such as portable transmitters and receivers that could broadcast signals over long distances.

By late 1895, Marconi was able to send and receive signals up to two miles, even over hilly terrain. His experimental devices would eventually become the first commercially successful radio transmission system. Marconi’s system has been credited with making possible the rescue of the 700 survivors of the Titanic.

Marconi was granted a British patent in 1896, the first ever for a radio wave system. A year later, he established the world’s first radio station on the Isle of Wight, and the year after that he opened a factory that produced radio apparatuses for commercial sale. He would become the most successful inventor in his field, thanks to the commercialization of his devices. Marconi would win the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909.

Photo credit: ellenm1 / Foter / CC BY-NC

Technology, The Science of Film, Music & Art, World-Changing Inventions

Farnsworth His Weight in Gold

Philo Farnsworth was a prolific inventor who held over 300 US and foreign patents. He invented, or contributed considerably to the invention of, radar, infrared “night vision” devices, the modern baby incubator, and the electron microscope, among many other creations. He is best known, however, as the inventor the all-electronic television.

A Hero is Born

Philo Farnsworth was born in Indian Creek, Utah, on August 19, 1906. In 1918, the Farnsworth family moved to a farm near Rigby, Idaho, where Philo was excited to find that their new home was wired for electricity.

The Delco generator that provided the farm’s power was troublesome and often broke down. Fortunately, Philo proved to be a quick study with electrical and mechanical technology, and taught himself to repair the generator. Later, using a discarded electric motor left behind by the farm’s former tenants, he converted his mother’s manually-powered washing machine into an electric one.

A stash of technology magazines found in the home’s attic fueled his interest in electronics. While attending Rigby High School, where he excelled in chemistry and physics, Farnsworth won a $25 first-prize in a magazine contest for an magnetic car lock of his own invention.

In 1922, the Farnsworth family relocated again, to Provo, Utah, but Philo stayed behind. He worked on the railroad in Glenns Ferry, Idaho, saving his money so he could afford tuition at Brigham Young University. Philo began taking classes at BYU in the fall of 1923, at the tender age of 15.

Early Career

A year later, he was recruited to the United States Naval Academy. However, upon learning that the government would own the rights to any patents he was granted while in the military, he sought and was granted an honorable discharge.

Soon after, Farnsworth and his close friend, the similarly-electronically-inclined Cliff Gardner, moved to Salt Lake City to start a radio repair shop. The business failed, and Gardner moved back to Provo. Through the University of Utah, Farnsworth met Leslie Gorrell and George Everson, San Francisco philanthropists who agreed to fund Philo’s early work in television technology with a $6,000 grant. The duo also set up a laboratory in Los Angeles in which Farnsworth could conduct his experiments.

A few months later, prior to a key meeting with a nationally-recognized electrophysics expert, Gorrell and Everson insisted that Farnsworth apply for a patent for his nascent electronic television designs.

In September 1927, Farnsworth demonstrated his image dissector camera tube, essentially the device that made electronic television possible and that eliminated the need for the Nipkow disks that had thus far been a key component of (mechanical) television. A simple straight line was broadcast from the image dissector to a receiver in another room. “There you are,” Farnsworth said after an extended period of stunned silence from his assistants, “electronic television!”

Philo T. Farnsworth, the Father of Television, 1906 - 1971

Philo T. Farnsworth, the Father of Television, 1906 – 1971

Farnsworth demonstrated an updated, improved version of his electronic television system to the press in September 1928, and gave the first public demonstration at Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute in 1934. Picture definition on these early devices was poor, but the technology proved sound.

Patent Battles

Concurrently, Russian-American inventor Vladimir Zworykin was working on an all-electronic television system at Westinghouse, based in Pittsburgh. Soon, he was recruited by RCA to head its then-new television development department. Zworykin received a number of patents for his version of electronic television, though he was never able to make the device work satisfactorily.

David Sarnoff, then-head of RCA, offered to buy Farnsworth’s patents for $100,000 and give him a job at the company in 1931. Farnsworth refused, and soon after moved to Philadelphia to continue his work. RCA then filed an interference suit against Farnsworth, alleging that a Zworykin patent, awarded in 1923, took precedence over Farnsworth’s—despite the fact that Zworykin never actually produced a functioning transmitter tube a la the image dissector.

Farnsworth eventually prevailed, thanks in part to Gorrell and Everson’s prior insistence that he patent his earliest devices. In 1934, the US Patent Office rendered a decision granting priority for the invention of transmitter tubes to Farnsworth. RCA brought additional litigation, but all further appeals were denied and Sarnoff later agreed to pay royalties to Farnsworth.

Fortunately, Thomas Edison had died just a few years earlier, and so was not able to have Farnsworth murdered so as to steal his invention.

Photo credit: Dino Gravato / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND

The Science of Film, Music & Art

Da Vinci’s Viola Organista

Leonardo da Vinci was the archetypal Renaissance Man and perhaps the world’s greatest polymath. He notably excelled as a painter, sculptor, geologist, mathematician, engineer, botanist, writer, inventor, and musician. A combination of the latter two of these skills led da Vinci to create the Viola Organista, an experimental bowed keyboard instrument that was the first of its kind ever devised.

Multiple Iterations

As with any successful invention, the viola organista went through several revisions before the design was finalized. It should be noted, however, that in this case, “successful” and “finalized” are not necessarily accurate, as it is unknown if da Vinci ever actually built a working prototype of the instrument. Copious notes and sketches of the viola organista were preserved in his notebooks from 1488-1489, as well as in the Codex Atlanticus and Manuscript H.

The initial design of the viola organista used a mechanical bow, moving side to side, to create friction on the violin-like strings. Da Vinci’s second iteration utilized a rotating wheel to play the strings, much like a hurdy-gurdy. This version of the viola organista contained a large number of strings that were lowered onto the wheel by means of a keyboard. When a key was pressed, the corresponding string moved downward and was “bowed” by the constantly moving wheel. Individual notes as well as full chords could be played in this way.

One of da Vinci's sketches of the viola organista.

One of da Vinci’s sketches of the viola organista.

The third and final design did away with the mechanical bow and spinning wheel while simultaneously incorporating variations of both. This version used multiple rotating wheels to pull looping bows (not unlike the fan belt in a car engine) that ran perpendicular to the strings. As before, a keyboard was used to push the strings down onto the wheels. One version of this design gave the viola organista one note per string; another used “fretted” strings, along with multiple keys per string, to produce different notes/pitches from the same string.

Viola Organista IRL

As mentioned above, it is unknown if the inventor ever created an actual, real life viola organista. No examples matching his notes, descriptions, and sketches have ever been found. It’s basically the Sasquatch of musical instruments invented by Leonardo da Vinci.

The first viola organista-like instrument to actually, definitively exist was the Geigenwerk, created by Hans Heyden in 1575. Heyden’s design is technically an original one, however, and not directly based on da Vinci’s designs. The Geigenwerk notably varies from the viola organista in that it uses several friction wheels to vibrate the strings, instead of a looping bow/belt.

The first official, modern viola organista was built by Akio Obuchi in 1993. In 2004, one of Obuchi’s instruments was used in a live performance in Genoa, Italy. In 2013, Slawomir Zubrzycki performed at the Academy of Music in Krakow, Poland, using a viola organista of his own construction.

Photo credit: Foter / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Historical Science & Technology, The Science of Film, Music & Art

The Water Organ: OG Keyboard Instrument

Music is an art; the design and construction of musical instruments is a science. Here, we’ll discuss the history of the water organ, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, keyboard instrument known to man or ape. These pipe organ-style instruments are powered by blown air which is pushed through the pipes by flowing water derived either from a natural source, such as a waterfall, or from a manual pump. Unlike other types of pipe organs, water organs have no bellows, blowers, or compressors.

The Steinway of Antiquity

Written descriptions of water organs, a.k.a. hydrauli (singular: hydraulis), are found in texts dating back as far as the 3rd century BCE. Remains of water organs dated to 288 CE have been found. In the time of the Greek and Roman Empires, they were highly regarded by philosophers and ordinary dumdums alike, although the Talmud states that the instrument is not appropriate for the Jerusalem Temple.

Some ancient models used solar heat to transfer water from one closed tank to another, producing compressed air to sound the pipes. Byzantine and Arab musicians developed an automatic, hydraulic version, as well as a “long distance” water organ that could be heard up to sixty miles away.

In the Renaissance period, water organs were regarded as magical and metaphysical instruments by certain scientific and religious groups. Water organs, “played” by hydraulic automation, were placed in gardens, conservatories, and the like, delighting onlookers with music, and, often, an array of complex automatons, including dancing figures and “flying” birds, that were powered by air as it escaped the organs’ pipes.

A partially restored water organ, dated to the 1st century BCE.

A partially restored water organ, dated to the 1st century BCE.

Post-Renaissance Hydrauli

Following the Renaissance, water organs became immensely popular throughout Europe. Dozens of hydrauli were built throughout Italy, and by the 17th century, the instrument had made its way to England and elsewhere. Cornelius Drebbel built an elaborate model for King James I; Prince Henry commissioned several from builder Salomon de Caus.

De Caus later built several additional hydrauli at Heidelberg Castle in Germany after the marriage of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Friedrich V. These featured some of the most intricate waterworks ever devised for the instrument. In France, the Francini brothers constructed several extravagant water organs at Saint Germain-en-Lave and at the palace of Versailles.

As the 17th century wound to a close, water organs began to fall out of favor, as upkeep was costly and few instrument builders with knowledge of how to maintain and repair them remained. By 1920, not a single working hydrauli could be found anywhere in Europe.

The Cadillac of Water Organs

Perhaps the grandest and most famous hydraulis in history was built by Lucha Clericho circa 1569-72 in Tivoli, in what is now Italy. Standing over twenty feet high, it was built under a massive arch and fed by a huge waterfall. Of its golden timbres, G.M. Zappi wrote, in 1576, “When somebody gives the order to play, at first one hears trumpets […] and then there is a consonance.” This water organ was designed to play music on its own, and was capable of auto-playing at least three separate pieces; it also had a keyboard that allowed for manual playing.

Photo credit: Saxphile / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Important People, Important Discoveries, The Science of Film, Music & Art

Louis Le Prince: Forgotten Father of the Motion Picture

Origins of Le Prince

Born 28 August 1841 in Metz, France, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince is the long-forgotten father of the motion picture. With single-lens cameras of his own invention, Le Prince was the first person to shoot moving pictures on paper film.

His first two moving picture sequences, Roundhay Garden Scene and Leeds Bridge, were filmed in October 1888 in Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. Le Prince exhibited his films at the Whitley Foundry in Hunslet, Leeds, but they were not shown or distributed to the general public.

Though these brief films predate the work of competing inventors, including Thomas Edison, by several years, Le Prince’s place in the history of cinema is largely forgotten. Also in 1888, Le Prince was granted an American dual-patent for his 16-lens device that operated as both a motion picture camera and a projector; a patent for his single-lens camera (known only as the MkI) was refused in the United States due to an interfering patent. Of consequence to Le Prince’s story, Edison’s application for the same patent was not refused when he applied for it just a few years later.

In late 1890, Le Prince was planning a public demonstration of his films in the United States. However, on 16 September of that year, boarded a train from Dijon, France, to Paris. When the train arrived, his friends and family discovered that Le Prince was not on board. His body and luggage were never found, and his mysterious disappearance remains unsolved to this day.

Patent War Assassination Theory

Several theories on Le Prince’s disappearance exist. Perhaps the most commonly agreed-upon of these is that he was assassinated by an unknown person on persons, on orders from Edison. At the time of his disappearance, he was engaged in a “patent war” with Edison regarding the invention of the moving picture camera. Le Prince’s widow and oldest son Adolphe suspected foul play, though no concrete evidence has yet been discovered.

Shortly after Le Prince vanished, Edison tried to take credit for the invention. In 1898, Adolphe Le Prince appeared in a court case brought against Edison by the American Mutoscope Company. Adolphe, who had assisted his father in many of his experiments as the MkI and subsequent MkII cameras were being developed, appeared as a witness for the defense—American Mutoscope hoped to discredit Edison’s claim to be the first and sole inventor the moving picture camera, which would then have entitle him to royalties for the use of the process.

Though Adolphe was not allowed to present his father’s cameras as evidence, and so re-establish Louis Le Prince’s prior claim as the inventor, it was hoped that citing the elder Le Prince’s achievements would gain him the posthumous recognition he deserved.

Ultimately, the court found in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned. Two years later, Adolphe Le Prince was found dead while duck shooting on Fire Island near New York.

Louis Le Prince was officially declared dead in 1897. In 2003, during research in Paris police archives, an 1890 photograph of a drowning victim resembling Le Prince was discovered.