The Ultimate Success of the Photophone

05/25/2011 12:55 pm ET
  • Eric Burns Author, 'Invasion of The Mind Snatchers: Television's Conquest of America in the Fifties'

In the last year, television became more important to more Americans than it had ever been before. Now that Barack Obama has defeated John McCain for the presidency, it is perhaps an appropriate time to skim over the medium's history, a remarkable series of events that began with a legendarily villainous cowboy and has now brought us all the way up to the celebrations of the first man of African-American descent to be voted into the White House.

To those of us who enjoy the occasional backward look as an antidote to the ceaseless, 24/7 drumbeat of the present, the backward view is a fascinating perspective.

In 1880, Jesse James was robbing banks; Wyatt Earp was riding shotgun on stages out of Tombstone, Arizona; and 14-year-old Butch Cassidy had just committed the first crime of his life, stealing a pair of blue jeans.

Johannes Brahms was writing music, Mark Twain writing novels, and Oscar Wilde was writing plays.

And yet in 1880, twenty years before the twentieth century and four years after he patented the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell took out the first patents for the device that would eventually become television.

Bell called it a photophone, a device that would allow a person not just to speak to someone else but to look at home in the process. It was a clumsy looking machine that functioned as neither photo nor phone. But Bell was undaunted. He was certain that it would one dya succeed as both.

To Philo T. Farnsworth, however, television was an imagine dissector, and in his early twenties he built a working model of the machine, dissecting two images. They were not very clear, but the banker to whom Farnsworth showed them, applying for a loan to support further research, had no trouble discerning what they were. The first was a horse that had been painted on a piece of glass. The second was a dollar sign.

More than two decades would pass before the dollar sign was a fitting symbol for television's success. But that the medium could be more than a gimmick, that it could be an effective, if one-sided, means of communication, would be established quickly.

In fact, within a few weeks of Farnsworth's initial broadcasts, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company arranged for Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to appear on TV. The screen was a small one, two inches by three inches, about the same height, but not as long, as one of today's credit cards.

But the occasion was a landmark, as Hoover was the first government official ever to be captured within such boundaries.

The New York Times was positively enraptured by Hoover's appearance. It gave the events eight headlines spread over two pages. Television was on its way.

There would, however, be several detours before the medium became the means of broadcasting the Obama victory and aftermath.

For example, learning on the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, WRGB, a station in Schenectady, New York, decided that its viewers would better understand the brutal efficiency of the deed if its technicans staged their own versiion of it. TV's first reenactment.

In a small tub of water, they placed a cardboard cutout of Hawaii, and then loaded it with as many toy planes as would fit. Alongside the island they stationed a few toy battleships. Above them, hanging from strings, were more little planes, these representing the Japanese aggressors, ready to attack.

But as the planes started to descend, something went wrong. The men holding the strings got them tangled up, wrapping one around another and then wrapping those two around a third. The men tried to untangle the mess, all the while keeping their hands out of camera range.

Their attempts, however, only led to more confusion, and they ended up tying some of the strings in knots. They tried to untie them. More confusion. They were like an untrained corps of drunken puppeteers. And them was running out.

As a result, instead of obliterating the American presence at Pearl Harbor, the planes of the WRGD version of the Japanese air force merely clanked into one another, unable to reach the island because now the twisted strings weren't long enough. The whole enemy squadron hung above the tub of water for several seconds, jangling pointlessly, like a dime-store mobile of some sort.

Fade to black.

In time, television became a much more sophisticated medium, its sets fashioned into pieces of furniture which in turn became entertainment centers which never evolved into plasma models the thickness of a coin and the size of a living room window. After that it would be possible to stop a program, go to the bathroom or refrigerator, then resume watching the program without having missed
so much as a second of it. And following that, and most wondrously of all as far as some people were concerned, along came television pictures that were portable, able to be transmitted to cell phones and thus accompany a viewer wherever he went.

It took almost fifty years of experimentation to convert Bell's idea for a photophone into a medium that could broadcast Herbert Hoover's speech. Now, after another eighty years of even more diligent research, TV has arrived at the point at which Barack Obama could fit neatly into a screen the size of a credit card.

We Americans have, it seems, progressed electorally more than we have technologically.