Joseph Tykociner: Pioneer of sound on film
By Tom Moone
“I will ring.” With these three words, the history of motion pictures changed forever. On June 9, 1922, members of the Urbana chapter of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers watched a film in which Helena Tykociner, wife of Joseph Tykocinski Tykociner, said these words and then rang a bell. What they experienced was the world’s first demonstration of sound on film. What they heard was the first death knell of silent films.
Joseph Tykocinski Tykociner was born in 1877 in an area that was then part of Russia but now is in Poland. His father, a grain merchant, wanted Tykociner to also go into commerce, but Tykociner was interested in science. Continual struggles with his father over choice of career path led Tykociner to leave his home at age 18 to come to America.
In 1897 while walking around New York City, he saw the Biograph, an early form of motion picture. Tykociner later remarked that he found watching a motion without the accompanying sound an unsatisfying experience. “The necessity of enlivening the action of motion pictures by speech and sound was felt from the very beginning of the art of motion picture production,” he wrote in a 1922 issue of the Technograph, the magazine of the College of Engineering. Adding sound to motion pictures would be a question that would follow him for the next quarter century.
Later Tykociner returned to Europe and was working for the Marconi Company in 1901 when Marconi transmitted the first transatlantic radio signal. Tykociner became a pioneer in shortwave radio and helped develop a system to link the Russian fleets in the Baltic and Black seas, receiving an award from the czar for his efforts. When the Russian Revolution came, he returned to Poland, where he set up the government’s wireless system, and then returned to the United States in 1920.
In 1921, Tykociner became the U of I’s first research professor of engineering. When Ellery Paine, head of the Department of Electrical Engineering, and Tykociner first met, Tykociner described his idea of photographing light modulated by sound as a means to record sound on film. Because most of the department’s research was in power engineering, Tykociner’s idea was in an area unfamiliar to Paine. “Can you prove it will work?” he asked. “Prove it?” replied Tykociner. “That’s why you do research.”
Only 10 months later, and with a budget of only $1,000, the public demonstration of the process was given in what was then the Physics Building (now the Materials Science and Engineering Building). In addition to hearing Tykociner’s wife speak and ring a bell, the audience heard Paine read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Because his budget was so small, Tykociner was forced to make a lot of his own equipment.
Tykociner’s process was achieved by the invention of two devices. Tykociner dubbed the recording device the “phonactinion” because he felt that name encapsulated its process of recording sound energy through the use of actinic (photographically active) light and a stream of ions. The sound was then reproduced during the projection of film by a device Tykociner called the “actophone.” The actophone made use of a stable, sensitive photoelectric cell that had been developed in 1913 by Jakob Kunz, a University of Illinois physics professor. It was Kunz’s device that enabled Tykociner to finally realize his goal for the past quarter century.
Though the sound quality was far from perfect, the words were understandable. Tykociner had clearly demonstrated that sound on film could become a reality. On July 30, 1922, an article in the New York World publicized his demonstration to the world.
Tykociner expressed an interest in patenting his technology. However, he and Illinois President David Kinley disagreed on who would retain the patent rights. Tykociner believed he should retain control over some of the work since he had conceived the idea and done substantial work on it before coming to Illinois. Kinley wanted the university to hold all patents associated with sound on film. In a November 8, 1922, letter, Kinley told Tykociner that in order to stay at Illinois he would have to pursue other fields. Unable to interest industry in his technology, Tykociner dropped his sound on film work and did pursue other fields. In the mid-1920s he conducted research on antennas that was a precursor to radar development.
In 1923, Lee DeForest patented his own process for photographically recording sound on film. Because of this, he is often credited with being the one who developed the process for sound on film.
Tykociner officially retired from the university in 1946, but he continued to work. His interests moved into a new field that he hoped would bridge individual, isolated areas of specialized knowledge. Calling this new field zetetics, Tykociner saw it as a way to study the science of research itself. His goal was to create a new science that would collect and systematize data on the theory and practice of research. Tykociner’s interest in this new field continued until his death in 1969 at age 91.
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