268: The Emergence of Early Television 1878-1939

Archival Spaces 268

Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939

Uploaded 30 April 2021

Even though we think of television as only coming to public consciousness several decades after the birth of cinema, one of the epiphanies of Doron Galilli’s new book, Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939 (Duke University Press, 2020), is that theoretical conceptions of cinema and television emerged virtually at the same time, it initially being unclear which medium would first come to fruition. Furthermore, it was not until the cinema had entered its mature, industrial phase in the 1920s and the first practical television systems had been developed that media-specific definitions of film and television were first articulated. In presenting evolving theoretical models of television from early visionaries to modernist avant-garde theorists, Galili’s media archeology demonstrates that American television as an entertainment broadcasting system was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, as Galili notes in his first chapter, early conceptions of television were intimately connected to the telephone and the telegraph, rather than optical toys as was cinema, and were seen as visual extensions of those technologies. The focus was on the simultaneous transmission and reception of moving images, whereas cinema developed out of technologies for recording and projecting images, mostly for entertainment purposes, rather than direct communication. In other words, two different media environments, and not just their ontological differences as chemical or electronic media, characterized the development of cinema and television. At the most basic level, film eliminated time by recording it, television obliterated space through simultaneous transmission between different locations.  Galili’s second chapter digs deeper by aligning the development of cinema and television with 19th century theories of optics and the human nervous system, which was thought to function through electrical impulses. Both media were seen as prosthetic extensions of the human eye (the film camera as an eye is a central metaphor of 1920s modernist film theory), but television could see the world instantaneously. 

1910 French postcard by Villlemard

Even after cinema became a reality and began rapidly developing into a coherent system of production, distribution, and exhibition, the exhibition of “actualities” still evoked a sense of being there in the moment, just as television promised “liveness.” That very notion of liveness is what television broadcasters would highlight, in order to distinguish it from cinema. Not that all early television attempts were that “live:” In 1934, Gaumont-British relayed eight feet of film of an airplane race from Australia to England by wireless telegraph, a process that took 68 hours, thus rivaling present download speeds for uncompressed movies. But cinema also began to define itself in contrast to the electrical transmission of images: “As cinema created for itself a distinct and coherent media identity, it charted new intermedial contexts and thereby distinguished itself from the sphere of transmission media.” (p. 93)

Siemen’s Selenium Eye, Scientific American, 1876

In chapter 4, Galili discusses the history of radio broadcasting, noting that its institutionalization in the United States as a system of privately owned, commercially operated broadcasting networks during television’s experimental phase (1920s) made it the dominant model for American television, while European nations followed a state-owned model for radio and later television. However, both radio and TV depended on a one-way model of transmission from centralized broadcaster to consumer, rather than the telephone’s two-way communication. As in his earlier chapter, where the author discusses television’s visual depiction in early cinema, he here looks at the many interesting and fun examples of television use in classic movies.

In his final two chapters, Galili analyzes modernist film theory’s prognosis for television, focusing on Dziga Vertov’s concept of the “Radio-Eye,” and Rudolf Arnheim’s 1930’s writings on television. The former emphasizes to a much greater degree than generally acknowledged that Vertov’s ideal – though unrealized – media for bringing unvarnished reality to the masses was television, rather than film, decoded in a Marxist terms. Interestingly, one of the central metaphors of his greatest film, The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), is the simulation of sound and instantaneous transmission (radio/television). Galili has a harder time making a case for Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who, following his standard work, Film as Art, denied television, like sound film, any artistic characteristics, since it was a hybridized, impure medium. Rather, writing from Fascist Italy, Arnheim focuses on television’s potential for totalitarian control and “maintains that the state should utilize the advantages of television in order to reawaken communal feelings and save the creative power of individuals from being ‘weakened by the division of labor,’ a statement that comes dangerously close to undergirding Italian Fascist ideology.

Man With the Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

In highlighting the dichotomies between cinema and television, between recording and transmission, between analog chemical film and electronic signals, while noting the continuous overlaps in conceptions and technical evolution, Doron Galili has vastly increased our knowledge of both media, while also illuminating the digital landscape of today, where film and television are no longer distinguishable. Ironically, the COVID pandemic has brought us back to television’s first conceptional model as a two-way tele-visual communication media through Zoom, WhatsApp, and Facetime.

Japanese Television-phone, 1968

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

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