Saturday, February 18, 2017

History of Computing I: The Colossi

The earliest notion of a "computer" that most people had in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries had one key feature: enormous size. Babbage's 1837 "Analytical Engine," widely regarded as the earliest ancestor of the computer, would -- had it ever been completed -- have filled a warehouse-sized room and weighed nearly 30,000 pounds. Babbage's designs used interlocking gears with various ratios to perform calculations, and his system contemplated a punch-card I/O unit, a calculating unit known as the "Mill" (a sort of CPU), and a storage unit he called the "Store." In his search for backers, he enlisted Lord Byron's daughter Ada Lovelace, who wrote an erudite explanation of the Engine's operations for a French journal; in 1983, a new computer language designed for the US Department of Defense was christened "Ada" in her honor. Two working models of his machine have been built in recent years; you can see one of them in action here.

Few significant advances in computing were made until the late 1930's and early 1940's, when military needs -- calculating target data, and (most importantly) breaking secret codes such as Germany's ENIGMA, provided both the impetus and the funding. In the UK, researchers at Bletchley Park, led by the young computer genius Alan Turing, constructed machines they named "bombes" which used electrical relays and motors to run through hundreds of thousands of possible combinations of the wheels and wires of an Enigma machine. Later, they constructed a far more advanced machine, known literally as "Colossus," for the same task.

The first fully digital machine along these lines was ENIAC (short for Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer) which used vacuum tubes -- more than 17,000 of them! -- as relays and switches. The machine had to be literally re-wired for each different kind of operation; the task was entrusted to a group of young women who, even though many of them had college degrees in mathematics and engineering, were regarded at first as little more than glorified switchboard operators. All of the units together weighed more than 60,000 pounds, and consumed 150 kilowatts of power -- all to perform roughly 5,000 calculations per second. While this was many times faster than any earlier machine, it's equivalent to a CPU speed of 5 kHz -- fifty million times slower than the average desktop computer of today.

The key invention which began the change from room- and-building-sized machines to something that could actually fit in an office or a home was of course the transistor, developed at Bell Labs in 1947. The basic idea was to use a semiconductor sandwiched between more conductive materials; such a device, like a radio tube, could be used either as a signal amplifier or a switch. There were several key advantages: transistors produced less heat, were cheaper to manufacture, and -- even in their early state -- much smaller. Each of the women of ENIAC shown in the photo above is holding a unit with the same storage capacity; the first two decreases in size are due to smaller, specially-made tubes, but the last is due to transistors. A typical smart phone today has nearly a million times the number of transistors in this smallest unit.

With the war over, business demands drove the computer market. The first commercial computer introduced for this market was the UNIVAC, introduced in the early 1950's. For around $750,000, you got a CPU speed of 1.9 kHz, about 1.5 Kb of memory, and tape drives, each the size of a small refrigerator, which held about 1.5 Kb per tape. A decade later, IBM introduced its 1401 system; with the top model, one could now have 16 Kb of memory, and perform almost 23,000 calculations per second -- 23 kHz. IBM did not sell the 1401, but you could lease one for around $2,500 a month. Home computing on a practical scale was still far in the future; although the SIMON and other home-kit computers were available throughout this period for home hobbyists, their size -- 8 binary switches -- made them useless for any but the most limited tasks.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Ghosts in the Machine: Early Television from 1928

The image to the left is a single frame from the earliest known television recording of a human face, made by the inventor John Logie Baird. The subject, a Mr. Wally Fowlkes, was a young lab assistant undistinguished save by his willingness to sit for lengthy periods under the bright, hot lights required to make television recordings. And, amazingly, these recordings were made almost entirely using mechanical means -- a giant disc with glass lenses was linked directly to a Columbia Records turntable equipped with a cutting stylus -- and predate any electronic images of humans by several years! They were preserved on discs that look much like audio recordings, and the frequency of the image data is so low that, if played through speakers, a sound in the audible range is produced. Indeed, Baird claimed that he could distinguish, just by listening to them, a recording of a face from say, a recording of a pair of scissors or a soccer ball. Baird called his process Phonovision, and although he abandoned it as offering too brief, and posing too many technical obstacles, it was nevertheless the first system of recorded television in history.

These recordings were little-known until a few years ago, when recording engineer Donald McLean collected several of them, and transferred their analog signal into digital form. Once this was done, he was able to correct for all kinds of problems that plagued Baird's engineers -- mechanical resonance ("rumble"), pops and scratches on the disc, speed irregularities, and problems with frame registration. The earliest recordings are still quite primitive, but one can at least recognize the faces.

Even more remarkably, in addition to these laboratory discs, there exist home recordings, made using "Silvatone" aluminum discs (one of these was referenced recently in The King's Speech). Silvatone discs used a heavy, weighted cutting stylus, and could record any sort of signal, whether of the human voice or a radio broadcast. And, due to the relatively low frequency of the signal, they could be used to record television broadcasts as well. During the brief period from the late 1920's through to the early 1930's, when Baird was able to send out television signals with the BBC's co-operation, a number of amateur recordings were made; these, too, have been restored by Mr. Mclean. There are about a half-dozen different snippets: dancing girls (of course!), a marionette show, and a singer by the name of Betty Bolton. McLean actually located Miss Bolton, by then 92 years old, and she was able to personally identify herself as the subject of the recording!

During this era -- in 1930 -- the BBC broadcast the very first television drama, an adaptation of Pirandello's play "The Man with a Flower in his Mouth." Although this does not survive, there is a re-enacted version, using the exact same script, the original music and title cards, and an identical 30-line Baird camera system -- you can watch it here, along with comments on the original broadcast and the recreation.

Mr. McLean has kindly permitted me to show his restored original Baird recordings to you -- but in class only -- as he is concerned to protect his rights in the restored versions. So look for some haunting images at Wednesday's class!

SIDEBAR: Here's a chart I've prepared showing the relative frequency and bandwidth of television signals, from the days of the Baird discs to HDTV.

ADDITIONAL LINKS: The excellent Television History site, a film of the 1936 Radiolympia demonstration broadcast as well as the High-def opening ceremony later that year. Both feature versions of the commissioned theme song, with its curious lyrics:
A mighty maze, of mystic, magic rays
Is all about us in the blue
And in sight and sound they trace
Living pictures out of space
To bring this enchantment to you ...
Here also you can see a modern 32-line mechanical TV in action; a 1938 Nazi TV station ident (they named the station after Paul Nipkow, inventor of the Nipkow disc, so as to claim TV as an "Aryan" invention); and lastly, a TV advert for Dumont TV featuring Wally Cox, later a "Hollywood Squares" regular and voice of Underdog.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

3D Movies: Always Just Over the Horizon

From its first appearance in 1922 to the current wave of films today, 3D has always been hailed as a great technical advance which would bring the cinema closer to its future as an all-encompassing form of entertainment. This future, alas, has always remained just over the horizon, and the reason is plain to see: it has always required special, add-on technologies that have made films more expensive to produce, project and view. This has led to cost, which has led to its being seen as a premium entertainment, which has prevented it from becoming more widely used. Doubtless the current wave of 3D will fade, but in the meantime, it might be educational to take a look at Teleview, the very first 3D system for the cinema, as nearly all of the technological elements -- and all of the hurdles -- were there are the start, nearly ninety years ago.

Basically, there have always been two methods of achieving the effect of 3D -- one, as with Kinemacolor, was an active method using alternating frames of the film for left-eye and right-eye views; such systems then required either a polarizing filter (with the projected images also alternating in polarity) or a synchronized, electrical shutter for every viewer (this was the method of Teleview, and seen in the diagram of the viewer above). Oddly, this is not only the earliest, but the latest, system: 3D television similarly uses alternating frames, along with a special set of electronic glasses designed so that each eye sees only the frames made from "its" perspective (at $50 a pair, they're hardly cheap).

The other method, the passive one, is to project both left-eye and right-eye perspectives simultaneously, and use either red/blue or polarizing eyeglasses so that the overlapping images are "sorted out" by each eye. This has the advantage of cheap, disposable means of reception, but the disadvantage that the image on the screen will be poor to anyone without the eyewear. While we often associate this system and its red/blue glasses with the earlier heyday of 3D in the 1950's, polarizing glasses were in fact far more commonly used, primarily because such films did not have to be printed on colored stock, or use color at all.

Today, converting a modern multiplex cinema to 3D costs about $300,000 a screen -- which, at some larger houses, would mean several millions of dollars. The practice has therefore been to convert only a few screens, which means that any film released in 3D will be on fewer screens, and even with a premium will make less for both the studios and the exhibitors. The dwindling economic returns of such a thing, especially in the current recession, have caused some studios, such as Warner Brothers, to pull out of earlier commitments to making films, such as the last Harry Potter features, in 3D. The jury is still out on 3D TV, and my bet is that, before too long, we will once again associate 3D, that magnificent technology of the future, with the past.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Later Developments in Cinema

The history of the development of cinema after the early portion of the silent era is largely -- though not entirely -- a question of the gradual progress towards both sound and color. Each of these, as we've already seen, started much earlier than generally imagined; sound began with Dickson's "Experimental Sound Film" of 1894, and hand-painted color had already reached a high-water mark with Georges Méliès's 1900 version of Joan of Arc. With sound, the great problem was synchronization; there were all kinds of schemes for keeping sound -- as a phonograph record, an optical code, or any other pre-recorded substrate -- in time with image. When it came to color, hand-painted films -- even with stencils, and armies of (mostly female) colorists, it remained a premium mode without a premium payback. The main use of color in commercial film, in fact, was with tinting -- a process in which certain segments of film to be edited were run through chemical baths. An emotional scene might be bathed in red, while another encounter would be shown in blue or purple. The advantage of tinting was that all the varied colors could be achieved in post-production, at the director's discretion. Such scenes as the "mellow yellow" of the frame from an unknown film of this era, were common indeed. In some cases, tinted prints survive and have been restored; in others, the indications for tinting have been recreated in restoration.

At the same time, efforts progressed toward a technology that would bring about the appearnce (at least) of full color. The pioneer in this field was Charles Urban, an American expat in England who had already achieved success with his black-and-white films in the era of the "Cinema of Attractions." Urban realized that persistence of vision, the same principle that enabled the illusion of motion, could enable an illusion of color as well; this was the basis of his "Kinemacolor" system. Black-and-white was shot through a special camera using a spinning filter which filtered alternate frames in red and green. After developing the film, it was played back through alternating color filters, so that the "red" frames were tinted red and the "green" frames green; the result was something very close to the feeling of full color (though in fact the process missed part of the spectrum -- with dark blue being very imperfectly reproduced). Urban's process also had the huge technical advantage that, although special cameras and projectors were needed, the film was just ordinary black-and-white stock. Urban promoted his system through ambitious, epic-sized films shown in specially built, luxurious cinemas. Unfortunately for Urban, he was sued by cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene, who (falsely) claimed he had had the idea for this kind of color alternation before. As has happened with modern patent lawsuits, the British judges had no grasp of the technology on which they were ruling, confusing concept with practical art, and Friese-Greene's scheme of staining alternate frames (which produced only a muddy mess) with Urban's far superior pictures. They ruled in favor of Friese-Green, and Urban was eventually forced into bankruptcy. Friese-Greene was never able to bring his system to the point commercial success, though his son Claude, using a process much more like Urban's system than his father's, made a number of fine early color films.

Ironically, it was to be one of William Friese-Greene's original concepts -- dyed film which was glued or bonded together -- which would ultimately be the precursor of modern color processes. The Technicolor company started out with a red/green system much like Urban's; they called this "System 1." Films made with this system have a haunting, greenish-yellowish hue which, while perfect for horror features such as "Dr. X" (1932) was less well suited for dramatic or comedic subjects. They next developed "System 2," a subtractive color process in which two dyed films were cemented together, but the finished film was prone to bubbling and cupping. A third system transferred the dyed prints to a fresh single film, but was still limited to two colors.

By the mid-1903's Technicolor shifted to a three-strip system, which was shot on three separate films, which were then dyed and transferred to produce the final prints. This offered the first commercially successful full color image, although red and green still had the most zing -- thus Victor Fleming's choice of ruby slippers and green witch's makeup for 1939's The Wizard of Oz. Not many people realize it, but "Color by Technicolor" was a licensed process not owned by the studios; directors had to hire Technicolor's camera operators and technical consultants, as well as entrusting post-production to their facilities.

Now, as to sound: at nearly the same time, different technologies were being tried to synchronize sound with moving pictures. Emile Berliner was involved with a disc-based system; Edison offered a cylinder-based one, but neither achieved real success. All the various attempts at sound stumbled with the issue of synchronization until the development of optical soundtrack systems, which in turn had to wait until amplified electrical recording became possible in the mid-1920's. These, because they could be recorded on to the actual film, and duplicated along with it, were both reliable and economically feasible, though of course exhibitors would have to invest in new equipment. Although hailed as the first sound picture, 1927's "The Jazz Singer" in fact only had sound in certain portions of the film, and still relied on the old sound-on-disc system. Rival technologies -- RCA's "Photophone" system, Western Electric's variable density system -- vied for the new industry standard.

The introduction of sound to film brought with it a host of technical problems: microphones had limited range, and had to be hidden in potted plants and tableware; camera noise was too easily picked up, and cameras had to be encased in sound-proof coverings. Mary Pickford, one of the greatest stars of her day and a founder of United Artists, had a terrible experience with her 1929 sound film, "Coquette"; she had to strain her voice to get it picked up by the microphones, and the results were far from complimentary. Her UA partner Charlie Chaplin, though he eventually embraced the idea of using musical scores on his soundtracks, put off the use of voice; aside from a phonograph recording, a one-liner ("Get back to work!") and a nonsense song in 1936's "Modern Times," Chaplin did not use spoken dialogue in any of his films until "The Great Dictator" in 1940, though some years later he recorded narrative voice-overs for many of his early features. Nevertheless, sound, well before color, became a standard feature of film very soon after its introduction.

Next up: 3D film -- in 1922?!

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Origins of Cinema

Although its basic technical details are clear enough, the origins of cinema are shrouded in doubt, dispute, and even death. As with other media technologies, among the earliest uses of sequential images were in scientific projects, such as those of Marey and Muybridge. The technical problem confronting them both was how to get a series of images in quick, measured sequence. Muybridge used timers and tripwires to obtain sequential images; Marey, more direct, invented a cinematic gun which "fired" a cylinder of small photonegatives; it looked somewhat like a Thompson submachine gun but was limited to 12 exposures. What was really needed was some kind of double movement -- a shutter which would open and close quickly and repeatedly, and a mechanism which would advance the photosensitive material. When the material in question was glass plates, the problem was overwhelming -- but with the invention of celluloid photo "film" by George Eastman, a solution was in sight, and the prize belonged to the inventor who could best employ it.

Louis Augustin Le Prince (above) is my personal favorite among the many candidates for first filmmaker. He had gotten his start working on painted panoramas -- great circular paintings which created a sort of Victorian virtual reality -- where his job was projecting glass plate photos onto the canvas for artists to trace. Arriving in Leeds, England, in the late 1880's, he married into a well-off family, and his father-in-law financed further experiments. Le Prince's first design was a 16-lens camera, using a series of "mutilated gears" to fire off 16 frames in short order on two strips of film. He later designed a single-lens camera, with a mechanical movement using smooth rollers (sprockets not yet having been tried) to advance the film. He planned to stage a grand début in New York City, and had rented a private mansion for his demonstration; his equipment was packed into custom-made crates, and his tickets were purchased for crossing on a luxurious Cunard liner. And yet just then, as he was returning from visiting his brother in Dijon, France, he vanished from the Dijon-Paris express and was never seen again, alive or dead.

As with many early cinematographers, Le Prince's films do not survive. Eastman's celluloid turned out to be volatile; it could disintegrate into a brown powder, burst into flame, or even explode without warning. However, at some point, paper prints were made of three of his films, and these have been reconstructed into short, viewable sequences. The films were made in 1888, earlier than any others. His first film, "Roundhay Garden Scene," shows his family dancing about in his father-in-law's back garden; his second, "Leeds Bridge," shows traffic and pedestrians crossing a bridge in the city where he worked; the third, untitled, shows his young son playing an accordion as he dances upon a set of stairs. The only question is: with what camera were these shot? Distortions and perspective problems with the frames, as well as the fact that there are rarely more than 16 of them, suggest that the 16-lens camera is the most likely source, but some believe he used his single-lens camera for some or all of the films. If so, he was certainly the first person in the world to make what we have come to regard as cinema film.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Earliest Sound Recordings

The history of sound recording was once thought to begin with Thomas Alva Edison's phonograph of 1877. As with many of his inventions, Edison sketched out the idea, and gave it to his engineer, John Kruesi. Tests and improvements occupied most of the year, and the patent was finally filed in December. Legend has it that the first recording was of "Mary Had a Little Lamb," recited by Edison himself. Although Edison made later recordings of the same text, there is no surviving recording of any sound using the Edison system until more than a decade later, with the 1888 recordings of the Handel Festival at London's Crystal Palace (one of which can be heard here).

And yet, it turns out, there are actually sound recording which do survive from nearly 20 years earlier than Edison's invention. These were made using the Phonautograph (shown above) invented by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville. His device was not intended to permit the playback of sound; instead, using a sound-sensitive cone which etched its trace on paper coated with a fine layer of charcoal dust, the aim was to produce a visual record of sound. It was only in the twenty-first century that these visual traces were, with the aid of computer models, rendered back into audible sound, and even then there were glitches. The 1860 record of "Claire de Lune," though to be have been sung by a woman, turned out to be of much lower pitch, and sung by Scott himself! This device, indeed was extensively tested and deployed, and rumors circulate as to recordings of famous persons of the day, among them Abraham Lincoln. Such a recording would indeed be a find!

The capitalization of sound recording happened in many phases. Edison's own company, founded in 1878, though it offered the first "talking dolls," failed to find any broader market for its recordings until more than a decade later, when improvements by other inventors -- chiefly Alexander Graham Bell -- rendered the Edison system practical for widespread use. The original system of tinfoil-covered paraffin was discarded in favor of various waxy compounds, which had the advantage that, though soft enough for recording, they could be hardened through baking. Later systems enabled the making of a wax matrix, which could be used to make molds to cast duplicate cylinders, enabling mass production of commercial recordings.

One of the lesser-known aspects of the Edison Cylinder system was that one could buy special "brown wax" cylinders and use them to make home recordings. This made the cylinder the one of the technologies prior to the home reel-to-reel and cassette tape decks in which the end user could make his or her own recordings.

There remained problems with Edison's invention -- the acoustical horn used in recording had trouble picking up fainter sounds (one reason that brass band music and operatic singing were frequent offerings), and the various materials and needles used in reproduction all had problems with surface noise (click here to hear a modern series of recordings made using Edison's original materials) In addition, all of Edison's early discs used "hill and dale" recording, in which the sound waves formed, and later reproduced, impressions by degrees of vertical movement. This system had limited fidelity, and posed many technical hurdles; switching to a lateral (side-to-side) movement offered promise, but was not made commercially practical until Emile Berliner came up with the circular disc as opposed to the cylinder. Cylinder and disc fought it out from the late 1890's through the early 1920's, when Edison finally ceased cylinder production.

All these systems were mechanical -- the actual sound waves moved the needle, and the needle physically reproduced them. The next step was what was called "electrical recording," using microphones to capture the sound, and relaying the signal to an electromagnetic cutting stylus. Mechanical systems could only be used with fairly loud instruments and voices; the ordinary spoken voice, or quieter instruments such as the guitar or banjo, could scarcely be recorded. Electrical recording, thanks to amplification, could be much more sensitive in the studio -- and much louder on playback.

Such a system did not come into wide use until 1927, at which time record companies made enormous efforts to send out "field recording" vans which used this new technology to capture popular forms of music -- country blues, jug bands, fiddlers, and banjoists -- whose talents could now be cheaply recorded and mass produced. The substate -- a mixture of shellac, carbon black, and clay -- still had a problem with surface noise (for a sample of what a record of this era would have sounded like without this issue, listen to these Louis Armstrong recordings recovered from metal masters).

 The Great Depression put an end to most of these efforts, and it wasn't until after World War II that the recording "industry" began its greatest epoch. Cheap players and cheaper records -- the constant-value cost of a 45 rpm single was a fraction of a 78 rpm record -- along with the rise of radio as a promotional tool, turned the record business into a global, multi-billion dollar behemoth. The arrival of digital CD's at first only extended and multiplied this vast empire, in part because people bought the same music again in the new format.

And yet, with the advent of the internet and audio compression paradigms such as MP3, the industry began to fizzle; its old bargain of turning the ephemeral -- music performance -- into the physical -- a disc or cylinder or tape -- was undone, as MP3's were almost as ephemeral, and as readily copied and transported, as the music itself. In the 2000's, the CD business has essentially collapsed into a small specialty market, and even online sales have fallen below the pace (due in part to unpaid downloads, and in part to users transferring their older recordings to the new format). Music is, once again, in the hands of the people.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Writing as Technology

We are accustomed to think of books, and print in general, as old and familiar things. To us, books are the "real" which may or may not be supplanted by the "virtual" -- Kindles, Nooks, and Google e-books. This makes it a bit difficult for us to recover the sense that the book, like the scroll before it, and the clay tablet before that, is a technical development, one which initially seemed strange to a world which had not known any means of preserving words and keeping them "stored" for another day. There's a video, which I like to call "Book 1.0" on YouTube that illustrates this perfectly. The book is no more a "natural" object than is a smartphone or an automobile; it has simply been around so long that we have gotten used to it, and now begin to fear that we may "miss" it.

Walter J. Ong, the brilliant Jesuit scholar and pupil of Marshall McLuhan, was one of the first scholars to realize and emphasize the technological status of writing. For Ong, writing not only changes our practical lives, it actually restructures our consciousness. This happens in a number of ways; our tendency to think of knowledge as persistent, as capable of being stored elsewhere -- and with it our sense that we ourselves don't have to precisely remember anything -- is one key effect. Beyond this, though, our whole sense that by naming, cataloging, and finding form in things that we are in fact re-figuring the world; that our mental abstractions seem to have shape and permanence; that there can even be a thing such as "capitalism," "Marxism," or "psychology" are also after-effects of writing and print. Print, by making massive amounts of text cheap to make, distribute, and preserve, accelerated these changes; with the dawn of the internet, this process has taken another enormous leap. The disappearance of objects -- the book, the music CD, the videocassette or DVD -- and their replacement by the mere making available of media streamed from somewhere else, is one notable result of this accelerating process.

At the same time, Ong emphasized the complexity and sophistication of the non-literate mind (he disliked the term "pre-literate" at it presumes a progression toward writing as inevitable). The ancient Irish bards had to memorize hundreds of lengthy poems; in the 1920's in Yugoslavia, Ong's mentor Walter Lord found pairs of men who could, by singing interlocked lines back and forth between each other, reproduce an epic poem of tens of thousands of lines. Such poems are as ancient as speech itself, and a few -- the Elder Edda, Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Homer's Iliad and Odyssey -- survived into the manuscript era, the print era, and are now downloadable as e-books. And yet, in this disposable era, when computers and cellphones complete the circuit from shiny new tech devices to e-rubbish in a landfill in a few short years, the old belief -- that writing something down preserves it -- may yet be reversed.

Some say that E-books aren't proper books at all. Some point to events such as Amazon's silent deletion of copies of George Orwell's Animal Farm from Kindle readers as a cautionary tale. The Pew Charitable Trust recently completed a survey of e-books and readers, and some of its findings are quite unexpected.

So where do we go from here? Will e-readers be the death of the book? Will a dusty old paperback become a sort of weird antique, joining 78 rpm records, 16 mm film, and Betamax cassettes in the dead media junkpile? Or will we always, whatever else we have with them, have books?

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Welcome to Media Culture I

Welcome to the blog and resource page for Media Culture I here at Rhode Island College. This will be, for some of you, your first course in the M.A. program, and I want to be sure that you can get all the information you need about the class here at one place on the Web.

In the early days of this class, and the M.A. program, I used to say that online resources would "supplement" the text -- but it's soon reaching the point where it's the online resources that are the main course, and the book which has become a sort of index or guidebook for them. You'll find the main links at the top right-hand side of the blog; as we progress, additional readings will be posted on the blog which will contain the other links to texts, images, and sounds you'll need. The links will be dynamic, and as additional resources, online articles, or projects become available, I'll post links to them at the side; be aware that the list will change over time, and you may need to look again to find newly added links.

If you have any questions about the class, or comments on the materials, or would like to comment on other students' postings, this is the place to do it. I look forward to meeting each of you at our first class.