Alexander Graham Bell’s contributions loom large in histories of the telephone and phonograph, but his brief flirtation with motion pictures back in 1882 seems to have escaped the notice of media historians. Granted, it never developed into anything beyond a few notes and drawings, but those notes and drawings were pretty darn innovative, including one fascinating proposal that I’d argue anticipated videorecording more closely than it did film. With this blog post, I’d like to draw attention to Bell’s long-overlooked ideas in this area, which I ran across myself a few years ago while scouring his notebooks for information about sound-recording experiments.
Bell’s jottings about motion pictures appear in Volume 17 of the Laboratory Notes, which can be found in Box 383 of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress. They span three pages, numbered 69, 71, and 73—the intervening even-numbered pages are blank. Bell drew these notes up during a visit to France, while staying in the Hôtel Bellevue on the Avenue de l’Opera in Paris. They’re all dated Monday, April 3, 1882, but Bell prefaces them by writing: “Following thoughts occurred last night.” He continues on page 69 as follows:
Duration of Electric spark is so slight that it may be considered as an instantaneous effect—whereas the eye retains a visual impression for a suitable length of time (I think about 1/10th of a second.). If then we have a rapidly revolving disk upon which are photographs paintings or drawings &c. representing a moving figure—and we arrange that each figure should be illuminated by an electric spark when it reaches a certain position in reference to our eye—we shall have the appearance of a moving figure. For instance
What Bell is describing here is an electric phenakistoscope. Ordinary phenakistoscopes had relied on slits spaced evenly around a spinning disc to expose each image in a sequence for a split second when it rotated into the right position, thereby producing an illusion of movement. In these notes, Bell instead proposes to place an electrical breakwheel at the center of a phenakistoscope disc, with conductive segments by the images separated by non-conductive segments between the images. As each image rotated into the correct position for viewing, the conductive segment would simultaneously complete a circuit and generate an electric spark to illuminate the image brightly for a split second. Underneath, Bell presents a sketch of someone looking at the results through a peephole, so he apparently has individual viewing in mind. Here’s an animation of what the viewer was supposed to see, based on Bell’s drawing—apparently a loop of someone throwing a ball up in the air and catching it:
By using two wheels we can have a stereoscopic effect produced.
P. & G. [phonograph and graphophone] completed for practical purposes we the same axis that turns could move a phonogram and also the axis of an arrangement like that above and we might see an act of shakespeare being performed at the same time hearing the words uttered from the graphophone!! If our graphophone should be an electric arrangement then—denouement—
Here Bell envisions a long strip of image pairs wound onto supply and takeup reels and run past an octagonal wheel intended to function something like a capstan on a tape player. As Bell observes, this second arrangement would permit the display of motion pictures of any length, as opposed to the brief looped action of a phenakistoscope disc. Moreover, by connecting the axle of the middle wheel to a graphophone (his term for a playback phonograph), Bell supposes he can achieve synchronous playback of captured sounds and images. His sketch at the bottom shows that he still has individual viewing and listening in mind. Ha ha!
The notes we’ve considered so far are interesting and surely deserve mention among early speculation into the forms motion picture technology might take. However, Bell’s coolest proposal by far comes on page 73:
Continuous photographic of moving objects.
There’s not much written text here, so we need to rely largely on the drawing itself to figure out what Bell is suggesting. He shows eight long strips of photosensitized paper, each one looped around two transports: a larger drum on the left and a smaller roller on the right. The drums on the left are shown with arrows as rotating, which would have caused the strips of sensitized paper to move continuously through the system at a constant rate of motion. The narrow portions of the eight strips of sensitized paper on the far side of the smaller set of rollers were then to be exposed to the light of an image focused on them by a camera lens. Bell illustrates this point with an image of a face:
As the paper strips moved through the system, the changing patterns of light—corresponding, perhaps, to changes in facial expression—would be captured on them. In this way, the photography of motion would be “continuous” rather than sampling the action at regular intervals. There’s nothing here corresponding to a frame rate, i.e., a number of frames acquired per second. Instead, the time resolution would hinge on how long it took each point on the paper strip to move across the exposed front of the roller. Meanwhile, the horizontal resolution of the image would be whatever the photographic emulsion itself could handle, but the vertical resolution would be limited by the number of rollers and paper strips—Bell shows eight sets in his drawing, but any number could have been furnished in principle. This is analogous to the vertical display resolution of a modern video image. Indeed, Bell’s idea as a whole centers on breaking an image up into vertical strips and representing each strip as a simple analog pattern of light and darkness, which is precisely what happens with analog television and analog videorecording—the main difference being that Bell wasn’t proposing to scan the strips rapidly from side to side one after the other, but to photograph each strip separately, continuously, and all at once.
The idea of scanning an image as multiple vertical strips wasn’t new with Bell, but can be traced back to Alexander Bain’s proto-fax-machine of the 1840s and other early telegraphic facsimile systems. Nevertheless, Bell may have been the first person to consider it as a means of recording images, as opposed to transmitting them over a distance. There would have been lots of technical hurdles to surmount if he had tried to translate his idea into practice, and there’s no guarantee he would ever have been able to get it to work. However, I was curious to see what the results would have looked like, so I adapted one of Eadweard Muybridge’s galloping horse sequences to simulate the display of the eight-strip apparatus Bell had sketched in his notebook:
The resolution seen here is admittedly abysmal, but the principle is sound: multiply the number of lines by 65 and you’d reach the level of standard-definition NTSC television. An individual strip in Bell’s proposed system would have looked something like this (from the same simulation, fourth line from the top, rotated ninety degrees counterclockwise):
Is that clever or what?
Alexander Graham Bell’s “continuous photograph of moving objects” may never have developed into anything, but I submit that it ranks among the quirkiest and most idiosyncratic proposals in the whole history of pre-cinema.