Exploring the fascinating stories behind the invention and development of photography, moving pictures and television.
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Hello, and welcome to The Genius of Invention.
I'm Michael Mosley.
I'll be exploring some of the greatest inventions in history
and the geniuses behind them.
I'll be joined by industrial archaeologist Dr Cassie Newland
and professor of engineering Mark Miodownik.
And together, we'll be uncovering the story of invention
and Britain's role in shaping the modern world.
We are absolutely surrounded by images.
The fact that you can see me now
without my actually having to stand in front of you
is thanks to some brilliant but eccentric inventors.
In this programme,
we'll be getting to know some of the giants of innovation
who had the vision and passion to freeze time through photography,
bring those photos to life with the magic of the moving image,
and then transmit them across the world.
The invention that paved the way for photography was the camera obscura,
a device that's over 1,000 years old.
It's a simple box with a lens
that projects an image onto a glass screen.
Artists used it to draw accurate scenes from life
by tracing around the projected image.
But that required patience and a skilled hand.
What was needed was a simpler way to capture images and preserve them.
One man who was obsessed with this idea was Frenchman Nicephore Niepce.
He's become known as the father of photography
because he captured the first ever image from life.
It's called a heliograph, which literally means "sun writing".
All photos, films, television
can be traced back to this view from Niepce's house in France
taken in 1826.
It changed everything.
Niepce was a printmaker
and regularly used a camera obscura to help him create images
but his drawing skills were poor
so he became determined to find a faster, more accurate way
of capturing images from life.
He did all sorts of strange things
like trying to introduce new gases like hydrogen
actually into the camera obscura.
It didn't make any difference, but he tried anything to see if it worked.
I think it was a matter of money,
just finding something that was industrially more efficient.
Others had tried and failed to fix images.
In the 1790s,
the British scientist Thomas Wedgwood used an earlier discovery,
that silver nitrate and silver chloride darken
when exposed to light to make sun prints
but he couldn't fix them and his images turned black.
Niepce's knowledge of light-sensitive chemicals
from his printmaking days
had shown that asphalt, which hardens when exposed to sunlight,
might hold the secret to permanent pictures.
After six years of trial and error, his persistence paid off.
He finally cracked the formula.
Essentially, asphaltum, which is the stuff we get on the roads,
it was called at the time Bitumen of Judaea,
is dissolved in a thinner,
lavender oil or turpentine,
and you get exactly the right consistency.
That is then coated onto a piece of metal
and then exposed to light
in a camera obscura,
and that produces the image on the plate.
Niepce discovered that
the areas where the paste was exposed to light turned hard,
and the dark areas stayed soft and could be washed away,
leaving a permanent image directly from nature.
And so, using ordinary ingredients, he did something extraordinary.
He created a light-sensitive mixture
and after an eight-hour exposure,
achieved the world's first photographic image.
It was blurred and indistinct,
but Niepce's photograph promised that our visual history,
from our personal lives to the great events of the future,
could be recorded forever.
Today we're bombarded with images everywhere we go
but it wasn't always like this.
The first ever photograph was taken in 1826
by Frenchman Nicephore Niepce
and it was an astonishing breakthrough.
But other inventors were hot on his heels.
To find out what happened next, I went to Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.
Like most breakthroughs, the birth of photography
reveals as much about the inventors as their inventions.
Niepce was secretive, and for years, guarded his process.
It might have stayed that way
but for the persistence of a flamboyant lighting designer
called Louis Daguerre.
Daguerre persuaded a reluctant Niepce to share his secrets
and in 1829, they signed a formal agreement to work together.
Unfortunately, Niepce then died.
Now, this left Daguerre,
who had no scientific training, to go on working alone.
But Daguerre continued experimenting,
this time using silver-coated copper plates
sensitised with iodine which were exposed in his camera.
The story goes that having broken a thermometer,
the mercury vapour caused a beautiful, sharp image
to develop on the plate, which he fixed with salt solution.
Daguerre had finally achieved what so many before him had failed to do.
He'd captured and permanently fixed an image.
The announcement that Daguerre had perfected a process
came in January 1839.
And, of course, with typical brashness,
he named the method after himself.
The French government rewarded Daguerre with a pension for life
and made the process free across France.
Daguerre from day one was the centre of the universe.
The Daguerreotype, Daguerromania,
you know, it took hold of the world.
But in a small corner of Britain,
this announcement was unhappily received.
News of Daguerre's breakthrough was a horrible shock
to the owner of this place, Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.
I imagine gentleman scholar William Henry Fox Talbot
pacing around agitatedly
as he read about it in a French newspaper.
This was such a shock because Fox Talbot
had been working on his own photographic technique for five years
and he had no idea that Daguerre was about to unleash this bombshell.
Unlike his rival, Talbot was a keen scientist
and had produced an entirely different method,
using paper instead of metal plates.
Will you take your coat off, sir?
-It's important that you remain completely motionless.
'With just a minute's exposure,
'small particles formed a faint image on the paper
'which could be developed and fixed.'
One, two, three.
'He named his process the Calotype.
'But Talbot, a perfectionist,
'thought his invention wasn't ready to be unveiled.
'So he kept it to himself.'
So you have these two great rivals.
-And what is the critical difference between their processes?
They're almost like day and night.
I mean, a Calotype, you hold it up and you look
and you see that dark is light and light is dark.
It's obviously reversed, it's a negative.
From that, you can make as many prints
that look exactly like this as possible.
You can make 100, you can make 1,000.
With a Daguerreotype, it's on a metal plate.
The plate that goes in the camera is the plate you take home.
And it's a one-off, direct, positive image.
Do you think it's because of their different personalities
that their inventions kind of emerged in different ways?
Daguerre was a well-known man about town.
He loved going to parties,
he loved entering parties walking on his hands.
He was an artist who came late to science.
Talbot, on the other hand, was awkward in crowds,
awkward in public situations.
He was the scientist who took a scientific approach
to the invention of photography.
Although Talbot couldn't match his rival's quality one-offs,
he had moved photography into the world of printing and reproduction -
a huge step forward.
There you go. So that's the paper.
'But instead of being celebrated,
'Talbot was condemned for being too slow off the mark.
'Under pressure to make up for his earlier mistake,
'he quickly published and slapped a tight patent on his invention.'
Now, that is rather good, actually.
I'm beginning to see it now.
The issue was about priority.
He wanted to show that he had also perfected a method
at the same time, if not before.
That was all purely a matter for him of his scientific integrity,
of how his colleagues in the scientific world viewed him.
But vociferous opponents claimed Talbot was trying to profit
from a process that was not even his own invention,
merely an advance on the work of others.
He was vilified and received nothing but abuse.
That's the irony of history.
Sometimes, the real heroes of invention
aren't necessarily the ones who are celebrated.
There are so many heroes in that wonderful fertile period
of exploration in photographic methods who are still unsung.
Daguerre became rich and famous.
And when he died in 1851,
his technique was still the most popular.
Talbot - well, he got terrible press
and was always seen somehow as second rate.
And that is terribly unfair
because it's his invention of the negative
which would form the backbone of photography up to the digital age.
Photography was born in the early 19th century
when scientists solved the mystery of how to capture and fix an image.
The next stage would be to bring it to life
and create motion pictures.
But when the breakthrough came,
it was from people who were much more interested
in trying to understand movement rather than recreate it.
And all it begins with this man, Eadweard Muybridge.
He had been asked to find out if
a horse's feet all left the ground at once when it was galloping,
and he did it with this machinery.
It's a row of cameras operated by tripwires.
The horse gallops towards the tripwires
and as it hits them, every camera in the row takes a picture.
What it produces is a set of photographs
which quite clearly demonstrate
that a horse's feet do leave the ground,
but more importantly, when you project them back
at the magic rate of at least 12 frames per second,
they fool the human brain into thinking it's seeing motion.
It was the beginning of moving pictures
but it would take the creation of an important new material before
cinematography could take off, as Mark Miodownik has been finding out.
Although early experimenters had made great strides studying movement,
they could go no further with the existing materials.
Glass plates were heavy and fragile
and paper tore easily.
Neither met the demands of capturing the moving image.
As a scientist and a massive film fan, I've always been fascinated
by the role of materials in the making of movies.
And it was, of course, a substance, not a technology,
that created the movie industry in the first place.
And that substance is this -
Like many wonder materials, celluloid was originally conceived
for a very different purpose.
It was developed in 1870
as a substitute for ivory in billiard balls by American John Wesley Hyatt.
But it was its versatility that ensured its continued use.
Throughout the 1870s, it was used widely
for a whole range of applications.
You could buy celluloid shirt collars,
even celluloid false teeth.
It was the British manufacturer John Carbutt
who discovered that this colourless, light, durable plastic
had a more illuminating purpose -
He coated thin sheets with photographic emulsion
and used them instead of glass plates.
But it was only when Kodak boss George Eastman produced
celluloid in rolls for his new stills camera
that its potential for film-makers was unleashed.
'They had seen how roll film revolutionised stills photography
'and realised it might also unlock
'the secrets of capturing motion.'
And celluloid rolls drove early film pioneers
to design new camera technology
that took advantage of this wonderful, flexible plastic.
It would influence the design of the film camera for years to come.
The perforations and sprocket rollers enabled the film
to flow through the camera.
A spinning shutter allowed for rapid exposures,
and a claw mechanism ensured the film could be moved and stopped
for each frame up to 20 times a second.
The claw, which was really the Lumieres' contribution,
was inspired by the sewing machine.
It's very interesting that you are taking an idea from one application
and putting it into another
and this is the way that advances happen.
In 1895, the film-making pioneers Auguste and Louis Lumiere
introduced their Cinematographe -
a camera and projector in one,
and unveiled the world's first cinema performance
of moving pictures on celluloid.
It's to a paying audience, only about 30, 35 people,
but within a week or so,
they're having 2,000 people a day coming through the doors.
As other experimenters rushed
to exploit the union of machines and materials,
the film industry was born.
Some of the results of those pioneering experiments are housed
in the British Film Institute's master film store in Warwickshire.
At this former nuclear defence facility, they have
one of the largest collections of early celluloid nitrate films
in the world.
-Do you want to come this way?
What would it have been like going to an early cinema?
What would we have seen?
The birth of cinema, you're talking about minute or less for most films.
They kind of slowly build up in length,
so by 1905, our most popular film hit was Rescued By Rover,
that ran to six and a half marvellous minutes.
The film was so popular that the negatives were worn out
because so many prints had to be struck from it.
What happened at the end of the life of these films?
Most of them were simply chucked out.
I think it's important to remember that then
they were not seen as art or culture in any way, shape or form,
they were purely product, and, actually, a lot of them
were just melted down to get the silver content out of them.
It's not just their historical value that demands such high security.
There was a dangerous flaw in the properties of early celluloid film -
'And this demonstration reveals
'why the invention of cinema itself was under threat.'
-Yeah, we're getting there.
Are you ready? Let's go for it!
It's the sense, that's a tiny bit of a reel,
just imagine a whole archive.
Reports of cinema fires ignited fears about public safety,
and in 1909, the Cinematograph Act was passed,
requiring the careful handling of film.
But it would take another 40 years before the development
of non-flammable celluloid, appropriately called "safety film".
Celluloid reigned supreme for over 100 years,
and even in our digital age,
it remains a symbol for the magic of the moving image.
At its heart, cinema consisted of images
that were projected onto a screen.
And you need a material, and that material was celluloid.
So, without the invention of celluloid, there would have
been no moving pictures and no cinema as we know it today.
Still photographs were familiar to our Victorian forebears
and by the 1920s, cinema was a popular form of entertainment.
Radio took off soon afterwards.
The next step was to try and bring the two together,
send moving pictures over the airwaves,
but how was this to be done?
Answering that question would lead to the invention of television.
By the 1930s, there had been over 50 serious proposals for television.
The competition was international
with inventors working in 11 different countries.
From the start, ideas for how television would work
broadly fitted into two camps -
mechanical techniques and electronic techniques.
It was a race that could have only one winner.
Mechanical television was first out of the blocks
thanks to an obsessive Scottish engineer, John Logie Baird.
Baird had been a prolific, largely unsuccessful, inventor
But it was here in Hastings
that he had the idea that would change his life.
Why not convert pictures into signals
and send them through the air?
Baird actually didn't invent any of the component parts
that went together to make television
but his strength lay in the fact
as an inventor, that he could look at these disparate inventions
and pluck together the bits that he needed to get what he wanted.
Baird created his first prototype using a combination
of recycled parts and four key inventions from other people.
So this is what he started with.
He got a hatbox,
cut some holes in it,
made it spin to scan the image.
The thing he made it spin with was this, an adapted fan engine.
And then he wanted to focus the image,
so he used the lens from a bicycle lamp.
Next, he takes that image
and he passes it through this.
This is a selenium cell,
which he got from a local army surplus store
and that creates an electrical signal.
Electrical signal goes into this,
which he also bought from an army surplus store,
this is an amplifier
and that creates a bigger signal,
which then passes into this,
a neon lamp which glows,
depending on the signal it gets.
And that, in turn, is projected through another spinning disc.
He mounts this whole ramshackle device onto what's called
a "coffin board", which was used by local undertakers
to carry dead bodies on.
this homespun equipment was about to make history.
-Hi. Good to meet you.
So he's got this idea, he's got all these bits of apparatus.
Did it really work?
Originally, he could show just basically a black cross,
it was a bit flickery and a bit wobbly,
and he could just about, with some special focusing,
just about get a white blob of a face
with a blob for each of the eyes and a third blob for the mouth.
He said if the person spoke, you could just see the bottom blob
wiggling a little bit but he knew, "This is going to work."
But as a lone inventor, Baird needed support.
He placed an advert in The Times
and later met businessman Wilfred Day,
who sent him funds and equipment.
He rented a studio in this Hastings arcade
and threw himself into achieving that elusive clear picture.
On one occasion, he actually blows himself up.
He's joining all these batteries up, not a good idea,
and he gets a 1,200-volt shock.
And he's found, with burns, on the other side of the lab.
And the landlord here, not very happy,
and eventually tells Baird he's got to go.
So, in 1924, Baird moved to London
and set up a lab in an attic studio in Soho.
He was using better amplifiers, better valves.
He was putting more light on the subject - in fact, he was putting
so much light on the subject that he actually set fire to someone's hair
and after that, no-one would sit in front of his camera.
So he bought an old ventriloquist's dummy's head
which he called Stooky Bill,
and Stooky Bill would sit under these very hot, bright lights
for hours on end without complaining.
But finally, after months of frustration, his hard work paid off.
On 2nd October, 1925, he finally managed to get
the image of Stooky Bill transmitted across the room.
It was blurry, it was out of focus,
but it was a recognisable face.
In 1925, inventor John Logie Baird
transmitted an image of a puppet called Stooky Bill.
It travelled only a short distance
and was hopelessly poor quality by today's standards,
but it was the beginning of television.
Baird's company quickly took off.
By 1932, they could transmit pictures
down 400 miles of telephone cable
between London and Glasgow
but they were still using wires.
What Baird really wanted to do was broadcast over the airwaves.
To do that, he needed a transmitter, which meant working with the BBC.
Dr Cassie Newland has been to where it all began.
All inventions if they are to change our lives,
need to find supporters beyond the workshop.
For television, that meant attracting an audience.
In 1932, Baird began test transmissions from Broadcasting House.
But he soon had competition from a rival system -
electronic television, led by the powerful corporation EMI.
The government had to select the best invention.
They asked the BBC to conduct an extraordinary experiment
in which mechanical and electronic television
would compete head-to-head.
And this is the site of the battle -
Alexandra Palace in North London, which, in November, 1936,
would play host to the world's first television talent contest.
A former Victorian entertainment venue, the site had the height
and range for the transmitter and space for two separate studios.
Baird Television Ltd's mechanical system was given Studio B,
while in Studio A were the newcomers, now called Marconi-EMI.
Their system employed electronic technology, which had been
proposed by Scottish scientist AA Campbell-Swinton in 1908
based on the recently-invented cathode ray tube.
76 years ago, this studio would have been full
of the people and equipment of the Marconi-EMI team.
Both teams were given six months to prove themselves.
At the end of the contest, the best system would be awarded
the coveted contract to broadcast to the nation.
The loser would go home with nothing.
Transmission started on 2nd November, 1936.
The opening ceremony was broadcast twice, first with the Baird cameras,
and then again on the Marconi-EMI system.
To the viewer at home, the picture quality was evenly matched,
but Baird knew he had a battle on his hands.
The mechanical systems Baird was using had been refined
over 10, 12 years and had got as far as they could possibly go,
whereas the EMI electronic system was still in its infancy.
Despite this, EMI's Emitron camera
showcased the latest advances in electronics.
The camera pointed towards the host and the picture
focused onto a light-sensitive plate inside a cathode ray tube.
The plate was then scanned using a beam of electrons,
which was directed in lines across the image by electromagnets.
This produced a series of electrical signals
which were sent to a transmitter.
The brighter the area on the picture, the stronger the signal.
At the other end, another cathode ray tube converted the signal
back into an electron stream.
This was directed in parallel lines onto a fluorescent TV screen,
and the successive scans built up as a picture.
EMI had three cameras in the studio
and you could take a picture from any one of the three cameras.
You could put the camera on wheels,
it was relatively light, and you could wheel it around the studio.
It was television as we understand it today.
Under pressure to match the quality of this slick new system,
Baird devised an incredibly complicated technology
based on celluloid.
They filmed what happened in the studio on film.
The film came straight out of the bottom of the camera,
into developer, into fixer, and then into water,
and while still wet and underwater,
about 54 seconds later,
it was scanned to produce a television picture.
Baird's system, while offering good picture quality, was flawed.
The cameras couldn't move,
the developing process required dangerous chemicals,
and it wasn't live.
It soon became clear
that Baird's mechanical system had reached the end of the road,
whereas for electronic television, it was just the beginning.
Marconi-EMI offered superior performance
and were improving every day.
As one of the producers said, "It was like using Morse code in one room
"when you knew next door you could telephone."
It is in the nature of invention that first is not always best.
The incremental improvements and adaptations of rival systems
can take an invention further than the original inventor ever could.
After three months, Marconi-EMI was declared the winner.
Baird had lost out.
In defence of Baird, to say that his system failed
is rather like saying that Trevithick's first steam locomotive
in the streets of Cornwall failed, and therefore
he has nothing to do with the history of the motorised vehicle.
If you go back to the beginning of any invention,
it bears no resemblance to the state it's now in.
That shouldn't really
detract from the fact
that he was the person who proved to everyone that it could be done.
Television is now the most popular form of entertainment in the world.
You can get it via cable, satellite, the internet,
or on your mobile phone.
Thousands of channels at the touch of a button,
and it's all thanks to geniuses of invention,
their failures as well as their successes.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
A reversion for schools of the BBC Two series The Genius of Invention.
Our ability to see and record live events from right across the world has shrunk the globe, making virtual neighbours of us all. It is a defining characteristic of our modern world. This reveals the fascinating stories that made such everyday miracles possible. It tells the story of the handful of extraordinary inventions and their inventors who tackled the complexities of chemistry and electronics and discovered how to capture and reproduce still and moving images. Michael Mosley, together with academics Professor Mark Miodownik and Dr Cassie Newland tell the amazing story of three of the greatest and most transformative inventions of all time: photography, moving pictures and television.
Our experts explain how these inventions came about by sparks of inventive genius and steady incremental improvements hammered out workshops and studios. They separate myth from reality in the lives of the great inventors and celebrate some of the most remarkable stories in British history.