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125 years ago Jan Szczepanik patented a device in the USA that was a precursor to television

125 years ago, the Polish inventor Jan Szczepanik patented the telektroscope in the United States, a device used for transmitting moving images along with sound. This marked the beginning of television technology. In 1898, his invention received coverage in the American press, including magazines like “The New York Times” and “The Century Illustrated Magazine.”

In the second half of the 19th century, many scientists around the world worked on technology that would allow for the remote transmission of moving images and sound. Polish inventors made significant contributions to these research efforts. For example, Jan Szczepanik with his telektroscope, and Mieczysław Wolfke, who in 1898 (while still a high school student) patented an entire system of wireless television. Wolfke proposed the use of electromagnetic waves as a carrier for television signals, Nipkow disks as selecting devices, and Geissler tubes as a source of modulated light for image synthesis.

Jan Szczepanik presented his invention in 1896 and patented it in the United Kingdom the following year. In 1898, he also filed for patent protection in the United States.

The telektroscope transmitted images in natural colors along with sound by breaking them down into points using vibrating mirrors in the transmitting device. These light points were then converted into electrical impulses and transmitted through telegraph wires to the receiver. There, with the help of mirrors and prisms, the electrical impulses were converted back into a coherent color image.

The invention of Szczepanik was discussed in 1898 by “The New York Times” magazine in an article titled “The New Telektroscope, Szczepanik’s Machine.” It provided details about “a device that transmits images using telegraph lines” and presented “an account by the Polish teacher of how his telektroscope works – a diagram of the transmission of colored rays.”

“The invention of the telektroscope, or ‘long-distance viewer,’ is causing quite a sensation in the scientific world. Jan Szczepanik, a young inventor, is currently in the United States. In an interview conducted with him, it becomes evident that the telektroscope is more than just an ordinary toy. It is a practical instrument, and its effectiveness seems to be greater than one could have imagined based on previous reports. Szczepanik declares that the telektroscope will transmit photographs over a distance and reproduce them at the receiving end. The inventor claims that his instrument will not only transmit images of actual scenes but also almost immediately transmit reproductions of manuscripts or prints over long distances and, after a while, fix the image on a sensitive plate or paper at the receiving point. He asserts that this transmission can be done over the same distances as the telephone operates,” as reported in “The New York Times.”

The publication also quoted Szczepanik, who stated that “the telektroscope is already complete in every respect and ready for operation. If one were to insert the first copy of a Viennese newspaper into the apparatus one morning, within a few seconds, literally before the printer’s ink has dried, one could obtain a photographic image of the front page of that publication in Berlin.”

“The experts have dispelled three main doubts regarding the possibilities of the telektroscope. Firstly, they asked whether it is possible to break down the image into dots and reassemble it by passing it through an electric current. Secondly, whether it is possible to achieve changes in the current corresponding to the differences in light in the image. And thirdly, whether it is possible to create the same differences in light using changes in the current in the second apparatus, which receives and reproduces the images. The answers to all these questions were affirmative,” as reported by the American publication.

A few months later, Mark Twain wrote an article about Szczepanik for “The Century Illustrated Magazine.” The text was dedicated to the entirety of the Polish inventor’s engineering achievements. Seeking applications for his invention, the telektroscope, Jan Szczepanik offered it to the Austrian army. However, they were not interested. Poland was under partition at that time, and Szczepanik lived and worked in Galicia, which was under Austrian rule.

Szczepanik’s invention did not undergo mass production due to its complex design and high construction costs. However, the principle of its operation influenced further research related to television.

The first television broadcasting stations were launched in the United States in 1928, in the Soviet Union in 1931, in France in 1932, in Germany in 1935, and in the United Kingdom in 1936. In Poland, the first attempt at public television signal reception took place on October 5, 1938. An experimental television station was built by the State Telecommunications Institute. The transmitting antenna of the station was located on the roof of Prudential (now Hotel Warszawa, Pl. Powstańców Warszawy 9). During the first television transmission, a brief recital by Mieczysław Fogg and the film “Barbara Radziwiłłówna” were shown. (PAP)

Tomasz Szczerbicki




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