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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

The Diaphote of 1880...the Amazing Precursor to Television

    A diaphote is described as an instrument designed for transmitting pictures by telegraph. On February 10, 1880, an article ran in the Daily Times of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania describing a remarkable invention recently demonstrated by a local inventor, Dr. H.E. Licks, that made it possible to transmit images by telegraph lines. He called it a "diaphote," from the Greek dia meaning "through" and photos meaning "light".
      At a special Saturday meeting of the Monacacy Scientific Club the club listened to a paper presented by Dr. H. E. Licks of Old South Bethlehem on the diaphote which he had invented after nearly three years work and which was, as of the time of the meeting, nearly perfected. Present at the meeting were many scientists of Eastern Pennsylvania, Prof. M. E. Kannich of the polytechnic school at Pittsburg, and Col. A. D. A. Biatic of the Brazilian corps of engineers, who was in the US making purchases of iron and steel.
     When Dr. Licks was introduced he remarked that a few experiments with the diaphote left him convinced that it would ultimately cause it to rank with the telephone, the phonograph and the electric light as one of the most remarkable inventions of the nineteenth century.
      Dr. Licks told of how the idea of the invention was first suggested to his mind about three years ago after reading accounts of some of the early experiments with Bell's telephone and later improvements by Edison. He reasoned that if the human voice could be transmitted thousands of miles away, why couldn't light be transmitted in some similar way in such a way that one could see an image? So, after much work and experimentation, on that evening he was prepared to exhibit to the club an instrument called the diaphote.
      He explained, just as sound waves strike a diaphragm causing it to vibrate and generate electricity which is sent along a wire and causes corresponding vibrations in another distant diaphragm which are heard as sound, in the diaphote waves of light can be transmitted.
      Light waves strike a specially constructed mirror joined by several wires with another mirror and the image of an object in the first modifies electric currents in the wires.  These currents pass to a receiving instrument and there produce a secondary image. The intermediate wire, as in the telephone, may be hundreds of miles long, but his diaphote plates were so delicate and powerful that the second image was almost as distinct as the original. Dr. Licks felt confident that after the removal of a few obstacles of a merely mechanical nature the most complex forms could be reproduced with excellent shades and color.

     The diaphote consisted of essentially four parts: a mirror, transmission wires, a battery and the reproducing “speculum”.
      Dr. Licks gave a detailed account of the experiments he had conducted to determine the proper composition and arrangement of the mirror and speculum, complete with the scientific peculiarities of the various chemical compounds used. He also explained how the mirrors were constructed as well as the construction of the device.
     The instrument worked when waves of light from an object were conducted through an ordinary camera, so that they fell on parts of the mirror when the electric circuit was closed. The light and accompanying heat produced momentary chemical changes in chemicals on the mirror, which in turn modified the electric current. The distant contraption responded in a similar manner, thus reproducing the image which could be observed on a second camera or even projected on a screen.
      At the close of the presentation a demonstration was given. Three people took the mirror of the diaphote to a room in the lower part of the building and connecting wires were laid through the halls and stairways to the speculum on the Dr. Lick's platform. In succession various objects were held before the mirror. They had to be illuminated by the light of a burning magnesium tape because the rays from gas lights were said to be deficient in actinic power (relating to or denoting light able to cause photochemical reactions, as in photography, through having a significant short wavelength or ultraviolet component).
      As the objects were shown, the audience saw them projected on a screen considerably magnified. An apple, a penknife and a silver dollar were the first objects shown. On the silver dollar it was possible to make out the outlines of the goddess of liberty and the date 1878 was plainly legible.
      A watch was held in front of the mirror for five minutes and the audience could plainly perceive the motion of the minute hand on the screen, but not the movement of the second hand. However, a Prof. Kannich looked into the camera thought that it was quite perceptible. An ink bottle, a flower and a part of a theater handbill were also shown and when the head of a kitten appeared on the screen the club let loose a hearty applause.
      After the close of the experiments the scientists extended their congratulations to Dr. Licks, and the president made a few remarks on the probable scientific and industrial applications of the diaphote in the future. It was believed that with the telephone and the diaphote it may yet be possible for people to hear and see each other as if face to face.
      It also had potential for railroad signal men or the central office to see hundreds of miles of railroad track all at once, thus lessening the possibility of an accident. Newspapers in England could be printed in New York a few hours after their appearance in London.
      Dr. Licks claimed he was soon to lecture before the American Society of Arts and would be making definite arrangements for the manufacture as soon as the seven patents he had applied for were issued. Word of Licks' invention soon appeared in other newspapers.
      The whole things was a hoax. But, the question is, how did Dr. H.E. Licks pull off such a remarkable stunt? He didn't. It was the newspaper article itself that was the hoax.
      Mansfield Merriman (March 27, 1848 – June 7, 1925) was an American civil engineer, born at Southington, Connecticut. Merriman graduated from Yale's Sheffield Scientific School in 1871 and was assistant in the United States Corps of Engineers in 1872-73 and instructor in civil engineering at Sheffield from 1875 to 1878. He was professor of civil engineering in Lehigh University from 1878 to 1907 and thereafter a consulting civil and hydraulic engineer. From 1880 to 1885 he was also assistant on the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey. His researches in hydraulics, bridges, strength of materials, and pure mathematics are important. He published many books that were widely used as textbooks. He was also editor in chief of the American Civil Engineers' Pocket Book published in 1911.
      In 1917 he published Recreations in Mathematics in 1917 under the pseudonym H. E. Licks, which included the story "The Diaphote Hoax", a republication of the detailed newspaper report from February 10, 1880. The name "Dr. H. E. Licks" was a play on the word “helix.” Other names appearing in the article were also a play on words: "Prof. M. E. Kannick" (mechanic), "Col. A. D. A. Biatic" (adiabatic) and "Prof. L. M. Niscate" (lemniscate).

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