Thursday, May 3, 2012

An evening of curiosity and bewilderment on which a butterfly enchants audiences in London and Paris

Shelford Bidwell, Original apparatus for telegraphic photography, 1881. National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, Bradford, UK. Source: Science Museum, London

Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? Some quantum physicists think so. But for sure Shelford Bidwell’s (1848–1909) fugitive glowing picture of a butterfly on the screen of his „apparatus for telegraphic photography“ set off his contemporaries’ fantasy and convinced them that „seeing by electricity“ would achieve functionality within a few years. After presenting his device at the Physical Society of London on 26 February 1881, Bidwell brought it to the venerable Royal Institution. His presentation on Friday, 11 March 1881, was one of the famous Friday Evening Lectures Michael Faraday had established at the Royal Institution in order to make science accessible to the capital’s educated audience. These lectures were society events and equal in splendour to an evening out at the opera. Men and women showed up dressed in their finest evening attire.

On 11 April 1881 Bidwell presented his device on a scientific reception in honour of Professor Helmholtz at London University College. A contemporary report tells us more: „Perhaps the most interesting experiment of the evening was the transmission of pictures of natural objects by telegraph, the picture of a butterfly most beautifully transmitted by means of a selenium plate. This was shown by Mr. Shelford Bidwell’s telephotographic machine.“ (Nature, April 14, 1881) Bidwell was an engaging speaker and his presentations were sought after attractions in the science world of 1881. Another presentation scheduled for 26 May 1881 at the London Society of Arts was cancelled „in consequence of Mr. Bidwell’s severe indisposition“. Again, on 5 September 1881, Bidwell showed his device to the 2.500 visitors of the annual meeting of the British Association in York, and on 24 September 1881, on the very well attended Exposition Internationale d’Électricité in Paris.

The audience started dreaming. „The telephotograph of Mr. Shelford Bidwell even gives us the hope of being able, sooner or later, to see by telegraph, and behold our distant friends through a wire darkly . . . With a telephone in one hand and a telephote in the other an absent lover will be able to whisper sweet nothings in the ear of his betrothed, and watch the bewitching expression of her face the while. . ." (The Electrician, December 3, 1881)

Bidwell’s device is currently located at the National Museum of Photography, Film & Television, in Bradford, UK.

Exercise: Would you have liked to attend a 19th century science presentation in London or Paris? Do you even own a formal suit? What does it take to present at a scientific academy or scientific audience? A cool invention that produces a loud bang and a lot of smoke? What do you think of free waffles and ice cream? Music? Read all about Chaos Theory and the catastrophic quantum chaos beautiful butterflies cause obliviously and in most cases without even apologizing.

Monday, April 30, 2012

An excessively angry electrical entrepreneur

Adolph Wittemann: Cortlandt Street, 1886. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

William E. Sawyer (1850-1883) was one of the brightest electrical engineers and entrepreneurs in the booming new industry of electricity. His light bulb was well designed and a staunch competition to Edison's. In October 1877, he invited some electrical engineers to his offices on 21, Cortlandt Street, in Lower Manhattan, New York. Sawyer presented them construction plans for an electrical "apparatus for rendering visible objects at a distance". Probably the meeting was meant to acquire investors in order to fund future research and development. Sawyer was used to that. His life was a constant flow of meetings with bankers, investors and business partners, most of them rather ignorant about electricity but eager to earn a lot of money in the booming new industry. Sawyer maintained a number of changing workshops and offices all over Lower Manhattan which, by 1880, was a lively urban center of industry and commerce. Sawyer also was a very ill-tempered man. He was often drunk, quarreled with his wife and finally shot a man for no good reason. It is not true that there had been a quarrel over Edison's light bulb, as some newspapers would have it. The New York Times had the real, breath-taking story: issues of April 6, 1880April 7, 1880April 8, 1880April 27, 1880, April 29, 1880May 1, 1880, October 1, 1881. Sawyer died soon after, before going to prison. His electrical patents became property of the future Westinghouse Company.

Exercise: Was William E. Sawyer a) a "Gentleman Scientist" b) an engineering professional c) a physics academic? Explain why newspapers would invent funny details like as if Edison's light bulb was the reason for Sawyer's quarrel with Dr. Theosophus Steele when it obviously was not? Is it OK for newspapers to do so? Listen and learn how to properly pronounce "entrepreneur"!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

The grumpy small town lawyer

Ardres, Département Pas-de-Calais, hometown of television pioneer Constantin Senlecq

Constantin Senlecq (1842-1934) was a lawyer living in the sleepy small town of Ardres, northern France, close to the English Channel. The cities in the Département Pas-de-Calais are small and the sky is often grey. It is as far as you can possibly get, in 19th century France, from the posh Parisian hot spots of science and lively intellectual debate. Senlecq was an educated amateur with a passion for science. And he was up to date on his topic. In 1878 he wrote an article on the mechanics of "seeing by electricity" that was widely reprinted in European and American newspapers. Yet, the constant grey sky hoovering over the northern cities had a deplorably displeasing effect on Senlecq's character. When more and more reports on Portuguese, British and American inventions appeared, Senlecq wrote cantankerous letters to Parisian newspapers vociferously claiming his priority in the invention, pretending everybody else had copied his ideas, which was not true. In 1880, he published a brochure with newspaper clippings on "seeing by electricity" - imitating Portuguese inventor Adriano de Paiva who had published such a brochure three months earlier. Many years later, in 1907, he got a patent for an advanced model of his invention which was not put into commercial use. Let us believe it made him happy. Constantin Senlecq spent his whole life in Ardres which looks like a terribly boring place on the picture above and probably really was.

Exercise: How do you think Senlecq kept himself up to date on electrical science? a) By subscribing to international electric and scientific magazines which the very efficient 19th century post office system brought to his house b) over the internet. Explain what you would do if you were forced to live in a tediously tiresome, dull and quintessentially dreary place like Ardres? Did you know how to pronounce "vociferously" and "cantankerous"? Listen to the examples!

Four residents of Ardres, France, discussing science in 1878:

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Gentlemen scientists and engineering professionals

The 19th century was the last period of time when educated amateurs had a chance to contribute real scientific insight or to make a breakthrough invention. So "gentlemen scientists", engineering academics and business professionals all had their share in the invention of television. How was their working environment? Laboratories at universities were completely new. That is why the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, founded in 1873, attracted the best young physicists from all over the world including, from 1882, women students. For the first time, students and teachers could build mechanisms and try out combinations of substances. No more learning by heart of unquestioned authorities, but fresh, empirical insight. Businessmen in the booming new industry of electricity built their own laboratories and workshops. Have a look at the picture below. These are the highly professional laboratories entrepreneur Thomas A. Edison set up for his numerous employees. The equipment was so excellent it would have made every "gentleman scientist" jealous. You wonder why Edison and his staff never invented a television device.

Exercise: Explain why it is important to have a huge laboratory in order to do good science. If you are unsure if women are allowed to study in your country look it up in the UNESCO global education digest. What do you think when Jewish and Muslim students were first allowed to attend Cambridge University? a) 1789 b) 1848 c) 1856. And the Berlin University? And the Sorbonne University in Paris? Look it up. You will be astonished.

Edison laboratory

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Places of television history

In the 19th century, Europe was the center of technical progress throughout the world. America was slowly beginning to contribute to the world of science, and Japan just founded its Imperial College of Engineering in 1873. So where did the early television inventors live? Find out more on this interactive map! For a better viewing click here: THE PLACES OF TELEVISION HISTORY.

View The Places of Television History in a larger map