The Scientist Behind The First Talkie: A Secret Polish History
Józef Tykociński-Tykociner not only created the first ever publically-screened film with sound, but he also worked on the first transatlantic radio connection and even came close to developing the world’s first radar. But why were his most intriguing discoveries misjudged as unimportant and consequently undeveloped?
Deprived & revered by the system
When you read Józef Tykociński-Tykociner’s obituary published in Transactions, the scientific journal of the Illinois State Academy of Science, you get a picture of an accomplished and recognised scientist:
Professor Tykociner was referred to as the ‘father of sound movies’. His first public demonstration of sound on film took place at the University of Illinois in 1922. (…) Professor Tykociner received the award of merit from the National Electronics Conference in 1964, one of only three scientists to receive the prize which was instituted twenty years earlier. He was a fellow of the Physical Society
But (probably due to its occasional nature) this note published in 1971, two years after the Pole had passed away, doesn’t mention that Tykociński didn’t get a chance to develop his most important discoveries due to the indolence of the same academic system that revered him.
His pioneering work on sound on film, despite being widely known at the time, didn’t make a significant impact and got caught up in a patent rights dispute between him and his employer, the University of Illinois. His experiments with microwave antennas that would’ve led to the construction of the first radar years before it actually happened were shut down by the university authorities who didn’t see enough potential in them.
Nevertheless, Tykociński managed to contribute a number of important developments to the field of electrotechnology and is considered one of Poland’s greatest 20th century engineers.
A sundial, a French book & somebody speaking on the phone
Tykociński became fascinated with technology as a boy . The young Joseph had been born in 1877 into a Polish-Jewish family in Włocławek, a town controlled by the Russian empire at the time. He would take a longer than necessary route to school every day, just so he could admire the sundial on the wall of the local cathedral during his walk.
His inborn curiosity caused also him to discover a French book in the attic of his home that described how the telegraph worked. After his sister translated some of it for him, he became glued to it for days. Later on, when Joseph saw someone speaking over the telephone for the first time, that fascinated him too.
Eventually the youngster decided that instead of being just a spectator of technological advancement, he would play a part in it by becoming an engineer. His father however had a different plan in store for him: his son was to get involved with the family grain brokerage business. But Joseph wasn’t to be easily persuaded, a fact he demonstrated by promptly leaving home for the USA at the age of 18.
Not photo-sensitive enough for the job
He reached Manhattan and found employment first as a factory labourer and then later in the workshop of a technical college. On a walk one day, he stopped at one of New York’s first ever film screening parlours to see a movie. Entranced, the idea hit him that they ought to add sound to what were then exclusively silent films.
His first thought was to record the sound onto photographic film. To do this, he would have to expose the film to sound-modulated light in an attempt to create a so-called variable-density soundtrack. Using things like gas lamps, membranes and microphones, he succeeded in putting the sound information on the film in the form of a bar of varied translucence, but he couldn’t play it back. Retrieving the sound from the bar was to be done by means of light passing through it and hitting a light-sensitive element hooked up to a speaker.
Unfortunately, the selenium Tykociński used wasn’t photo-sensitive enough for the job. He also lacked the proper equipment, especially an amplifier. It may well have been this setback that prompted him to return to Europe in search of technical education. In autumn 1897, just two years after leaving home, Tykociński was back in Poland. His father must have missed him dearly – the old man dropped his insistence that his son become a grain broker, and gave him his blessing to pursue a career in engineering.
The type to experiment
After finally officially completing secondary school in Warsaw in 1900, Tykociński went off to study at the Higher Technical Institute in Köthen, Germany. He wasn’t the type to neatly do his homework and quietly follow instructions though. Instead he would concentrate on conducting his own experiments and on following the most recent developments in the then still emerging field of radio technology.
His approach seemed to work as it landed him a job with the Marconi Company in London, founded by the famous inventor of radio Guglielmo Marconi. Tykocińśki worked there, among other things, on establishing the first ever transatlantic radio connection.
By 1903, he was involved with Siemens und Halske, a German company that tasked him with providing the Russian navy with a radio communications system. To accomplish this, the Pole went to Russia around 1905 and stayed there until 1918. In this time, thanks to his efforts, the Russian navy became the world’s first fully radio-equipped naval force.
Nevertheless, the Pole hadn’t forgotten about the problem of sound on film. In Russia, he tried to crack it by employing various things, including a mercury lamp of his own design. He didn’t succeed this time round either.
A ferment arose in Poland
The Bolshevik Revolution meant for Tykociński, a man with close ties to the Tsarist navy, that it was best to leave Russia. He went back to a Poland regaining its independence, an experience he later reminisced about:
In the autumn of 1918, I came back to my home country and began research work in Warsaw… Soon a ferment arose in Poland that brought my country its long-awaited independence.
After Poland became a free country again, Tykociński, among other things, helped establish the country’s National Radiotechnical Institute, whose mission was to conduct research in radiotechnology. He didn’t stay long however – in 1920, he left for America again where he reckoned it would be easier for him to realise his passion for experimental engineering.
He didn’t have to wait long to be given a shot at it. Following a stint in Pittsburgh where Tykociński worked at a local laboratory, he was invited to become a research professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana, where his job would be to research and innovate. Needless to say, the Pole didn’t decline the offer.
Did you hear the bell ring?
Tykociński started work at the University of Illinois in the autumn of 1921. There, he immediately decided to have another go at the issue that had been haunting him all these years: sound on film.
This time though, he was fortunate enough to encounter Jakob Kunz, a scientist involved with the university who had developed a photoelectric cell a few years earlier. Kunz’s cell, made of potassium and silver, was far more sensitive than the selenium-based elements Tykociński had been dealing with up until then. The Pole now also had access to lamps he could use for sound amplification, even if he did have to borrow them each day from the on-campus radio station and return them before the evening broadcast. The cell and capacity to amplify completed Tykociński’s puzzle and on 9th June 1922 he was ready for a public showing of his invention – the first ever public screening of a ‘talkie’.
The short moving picture presented at the University featured Helena, Tykociński’s Polish-born wife holding a bell. After saying the words ‘I will ring’,' it showed her doing as she declared and the bell sounding. Afterwards she inquires from the soundtrack ‘Did you hear the bell ring?’
After all these years, Tykociński finally had closure through this short film. And publicity as well. Despite the soundtrack’s crudeness, there was a lot of interest in the new technology: for example, the influential newspaper New York World covered it in-depth.
But not everybody was amazed with Tykociński’s accomplishment.
I wouldn’t give a dime for all the possibilities of that invention. The public will never accept it.
That’s how George Eastman, at the time an authority on technical issues in cinema, commented on Tykociński’s invention. His view wasn’t an isolated one. In general, adding sound to film wasn’t considered a priority among movie makers of the time – it seemed more of a pesky logistic problem than a possible breakthrough. Also frustrating for Tykociński, a patent rights conflict discouraged the University from promoting the Pole’s technology. As a result Tykociński’s invention never became part of Hollywood and was only patented four years later in 1926.
The following year 1927 saw the premiere of the first commercial ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer, created by the Polish-Jewish Warner brothers using different technology. They managed to go against the dominant consensus about sound on film and ended up becoming hugely successful because of that. Their film ended up being seen as one of the most important moments in cinema history. Naturally, Tykociński wasn’t happy with the way things had played out. Back in 1923, he had written a letter that summed up his frustrations:
I wished to continue my work on a larger scale. This was not possible…You see the picture. Years of efforts, complete attainment of the object in view, short moments of satisfaction and appreciation, a flood of correspondence and finally full disappointment.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last time the Pole was to be fruitlessly ahead of his time.
Make room for the cows
After Tykociński’s sound-on-film project went quiet, he turned his attention toward microwaves. He started experimenting with them, seeking to scale down the hefty radio wave antennas of the time. This work required a great deal of outdoor space, so he convinced the College of Agriculture to give him access to one of its fields. He was permitted to use it on the condition that the cows in the field wouldn’t be disturbed.
Of course, the animals were the ones doing the disturbing – they kept disrupting the experiments by approaching the equipment, and eventually one of Tykociński’s collaborators was delegated to keeping them away. Curiously though, the cows’ lack of tact resulted in a discovery. The Pole accidentally noticed that they reflect microwaves. But before if he could investigate further, he was politely asked to cease what he was doing in order to give the cows more room.
Had he continued this research he would have, in all probability, developed the radar – an invention that came into existence only in the 1930s, around a decade after Tykociński’s microwave experiments. Alas, today, many publications on the history of radar don’t even mention his name.
Another area where Tykociński is overlooked today is in the field of piezoelectricity (the electric polarisation of solid substances by applying mechanical stress). His research into this too ended up being thwarted by university authorities – they didn’t consider it promising enough to grant him the funds it would require. In another case of history repeating, piezoelectric technology would be developed in the years to follow without him, and become widely used across all sorts of music technology, such as in gramophone players and guitar pick-ups.
A science of research
Despite the difficulties Tykociński experienced as a research professor, he did manage to make meaningful developments. Toward the end of his career he held patents in submarine signalling, high-voltage cable testing, and antenna models. But these achievements weren’t quite as spectacular as the status of the inventor of radar or the man that brought sound to cinema, titles he had been so close to attaining. That’s probably why he stated the following when retiring from academic life in 1948:
I should now like to concentrate my work on the problem I started to investigate in 1927 – namely, what are the conditions helpful in research activities.
Despite being 71 years old, he started concentrating on formulating what he called ‘Zetetics’. Not to be confused with the later scientific philosophy of Zeteticism, Tykociński’s new research science was meant to detect the most important lacks in human knowledge by providing a structured overview of all creative advancement: engineering, art, anthropology and so forth. Zetetics was designed to help researchers avoid the situation where their valid work was left underdeveloped due to a lack of insight, something Tykociński experienced himself more than once. In 1959, he published the book Research as a Science: Zetetics where he outlined the principals of the science. Three years later, at the grand old age of 85, he actually returned to the University of Illinois to teach it.
The new science however, much like his sound-on-film invention, never became more than an academic curiosity. Perhaps it is only waiting to be rediscovered by a mind equally as acute and as passionate as Tykociński’s…
Author: Marek Kępa, July 2017