Q&A with C. Francis Jenkins biographer Donald Godfrey

Donald G. Godfrey is a broadcast educator, professional broadcaster, and historian. Godfrey is also a past president of the national Broadcast Education Association (BEA), a former editor of the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, and served as president of the National Council of Communication Associations (CCA). His new book C. Francis Jenkins: Pioneer of Film and Television profiles one of America’s greatest independent inventors.

Q: What film and television products of today can be traced back to the inventions of C. Francis Jenkins?

Donald Godfrey: Jenkins was an important inventor in two major industries — film and television. And we must remember that seldom is a ‘product’ of today the result of a singular inventor. With that in mind Jenkins contributed significantly.

In film Jenkins created and sold his controversial Phantoscope projector, which lead to today’s large-screen movies. His projector, which he perfected with Thomas Armat, transformed the film industry from the nickelodeon to the large screen.

Jenkins created equipment for independent film makers such as Burton Holmes, Siegmund Lubin, Herber J. Miles and Carl Laemmle. These film independents were a force in the organization of today’s industry structure and Jenkins supported their film making.

He created fire proof projectors for the classroom.

In the 1920’s had a high speed camera which made its way into industrial and sports usage. “Bobby” Tyre Jones Jr. used Jenkins’ cameras to perfect his golf swing.

The most interesting of Jenkins’ inventions seen in today’s technology are in the large-screen motion-picture theater styled optical projection systems. This is a system the Christian Science Monitor described as “uniting motion picture and television.” Jenkins replaced the mechanics of film using optical electronics for projecting images onto the screen. The result is that modern technology today looks surprisingly like a descendant of Jenkins’ 1930s theories and his dreams. In this respect he has been portrayed being “seventy years ahead of his time.”

In television today there are a number of Jenkins patents still being referenced in the development of modern systems. In addition to the references to his electro-optical patents, scientists and technicians are looking back to Jenkins’ patents Jenkins for controlling light; receivers used in facsimiles; lens controls etc. Twenty-six of his patents have been referenced 130 times in modern projects.

Fiber optics was clearly first utilized in Jenkins’ ‘drum scanner.’ Inside this scanner there were translucent rods used in the transmission of light. This is an anticipation of fiber optics.

Photo-cells are also seen in the new visual sensation that portended the special effects of today’s spectacular effects. Jenkins photo cells temporarily stored the light and routed it at the desired moment. The theoretical foundations of these cells relate to the modern-day Digital Light Processing (DLP) and Mico Electronic Mechanical Systems (MEM) display technology.

At his death Jenkins left behind ideas, patents and records concerning improvement in the vacuum-tube characteristics, radio frequency measurements, scanning systems, synchronization testing, halftone amplifiers, motor research, photo cell research, color filters, and more film tests. His ideas were buried by the Depression and RCA for seven decades before then began being referenced by modern technicians.

Q: Jenkins holds patents for inventions that have nothing to do with film and television. What were some of his other innovations?

Godfrey: Jenkins was a visionary entrepreneur. He took his inspiration from the needs that surrounded him. His diversity of invention responded to the needs of the time. He had no corporate sponsors. He was among the last of the independent inventors. The profits from all of his labors he put into his primary interests, which were film and television technology.

Jenkins contributed to the development of the automobile, aeronautics, and numerous novelty inventions. The Jenkins Automobile Company produced four models: The “Steam Trap,” was a personal passenger vehicle; a freight truck; a tour bus, and the world’s smallest car. Jenkins was a pilot and loved to fly. His first airplane, purchased in 1918, was basically a flying boat he purchased from navy surplus. The Navy was reluctant to sell to Jenkins, so he wrote to the assistant secretary of the navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, requesting permission. He would fly all over the east and Midwestern states. He incorporated flight into his television and film experiments. One of Jenkins’ most fascinating aeronautical ideas was the airplane catapult, for takeoff and landing from the tops of buildings. Perhaps his most important aeronautical invention was the altimeter, which allowed the pilot to know the height of the plane before the touchdown.

If family folklore is accurate, Jenkins most profitable invention was a mere milk bottle. It was a “spiral wound paper container what was eventually used in every grocery, drug, candy or produce store in the country.” Jenkins waxed-paper cartons resulted more than eighty related patents.

Jenkins novelty inventions filled smaller, more immediate, sometimes humorous needs.  He developed a mathematical pocket calculator marketed by the Scranton Novelty Company. There was a Christmas-tree holder, which after the holidays could be folded into a stool. His talking signs are akin to today’s news-ticker building signs.

An interesting novelty, which Jenkins called a “plaything . . . a mere toy,” was a static motor, which seemingly took its energy from the air and made the fan blades turn. There were no batteries, or external power sources, but when he hooked it up the motor would spin. It spun slowly in calm weather, but Jenkins said, “it runs like the dickens at all other times.”

Q: How did Jenkins’s work lead to the first film boycott?

Godfrey: I would not call it a “boycott,” as that leaves the impression that there was ongoing activity. It was more of a protest over nudity on film.

The event was one of Jenkins first demonstrations of his ‘Phantoscope,’ which was a film projector. Remember now at this time, 1894, photography was awkward compared to today’s standards and expectations. Still-camera technology had progressed significantly, but the challenge of large screen projection of a moving image was thought by some to be impossible. The juggernaut of the industry was Thomas Edison, who was making good money with his nickelodeon films. Jenkins Phantoscope changed the direction of film history and created monumental conflict between Jenkins, Thomas Armat and Thomas A. Edison.

The demonstration inferred in your question occurred when Jenkins premiered his Phantoscsope, in 1894, for a small group of family and friends at the Jenkins and Company Jewelry Store, of Richmond Indiana. This was the worlds first large-screen motion-picture exhibition. The store was closed for the demonstration. Curtains were draped over the windows darkening the room and a huge canvas screen was stretched out on the wall. The film began rolling and life sized images appeared depicting a dancing girl dressed in a butterfly costume. She danced across the screen to the amazement of the audience. As the ballerina lifted her skirt, to bow at the end of the performance, she revealed her ankle, and the ladies in the audience, all Quakers, stormed out of the store in protest over such a display of nudity. They went directly to the Church to pray for Jenkins soul. The men in the audience stayed on to see the show.

Arguably, this was the first protest over large screen motion picture film nudity.

Q: Was Jenkins unique as an American working on early television technology?

Godfrey: Yes. But of course, there were others working on television and radio technology. Westinghouse, RCA, General Electric, and AT&T among them. These were American corporate giants in the race with Jenkins. Farnsworth’s work would not appear until 1927, when he was still experimenting in the laboratory of San Francisco.

Jenkins described some of his earliest experiment as in ‘radiovision — radio for the eyes.’ He first worked on the wireless transmission of still images, which today relates to the facsimile. In 1925, he transmitted motion in the laboratory and demonstrated it to some of the notables of the day. These were simply movements of the hand and the most famous of his demonstrations for Hugo Gernsback utilized a model windmill. By 1928 he had a broadcast television station on the air from Wheaton, MA just outside of Washington, D.C..  The Jenkins Television Corporation was formed just ten months before the stock market crash and the Great Depression. It purchased the DeForest Company, put more stations on the air in New Jersey and New York. It had started to sell receivers. Jenkins was conducting experiments with the Ham radio operators, developing both local D. C., and Ham audiences. The station’s programming schedules were narrow by today’s standards, but they fairly were regular. Then crash!

For a few years Jenkins was the leader in the American field. The creation of the Jenkins Television Corporation gave him a national launch. Black Tuesday, October 19, 1929, took away his competitive lead. Jenkins health was declining.  Shareholders in the company were scattering. He was forced to sell. RCA purchased the corporation and buried Jenkins optical electronic patent ideas in favor of the electronic television system.

Q: You mentioned Farnsworth?  Wasn’t he too an independent inventor of the time?

Godfrey: There are fascinating parallels between the lives of Charles Francis Jenkins and Philo Taylor Farnsworth. Jenkins was born in 1867 and  Farnsworth in 1906. So, Jenkins obviously had something of a head-start. They both came from strong Christian backgrounds — Jenkins, a Quaker and Farnsworth a Mormon. Both suffered sever health problems, which slowed the pace of their work. Both were workaholics, which contributed to their health problems. Both were told by their doctors to slow down. Neither did. Both were independent inventors under the continual pressure of raising their own funds to continue their inventions. Both were swallowed by the Great Depression . . . . and then RCA.

Farnsworth was never a Jenkins competitor. By 1927, which according to Philo T. Farnsworth: The Father of Television, marks the year of Farnsworth’s first electronic patents, Jenkins was well into his work. He had the Jenkins Laboratories, in Washington, D.C., he was only a year away from launching his first television station and the Jenkins Television Corporation. More important, Farnsworth system patents were for electronic scanning and Jenkins were for optical-electronics. They were different scanning systems.

Q: Why doesn’t Jenkins have a higher profile as a pioneer of today’s film and television?

Godfrey: For two reasons. First, Jenkins like Farnsworth was dislodged by the Depression and dismantled by RCA, which literally sold his station transmission towers in D.C. for scrap metal. As is well known, RCA was not about to share credit or publicity with anyone. This was just the way of competition in business. As a result, a good deal of that history was lost.

Second, historians recognized Jenkins’ work in the mechanical systems of the time, but their discussions of him start and stop with mechanical television. C. Francis Jenkins: Pioneer of Film and Television, works to balance and complete a story that has been too long forgotten. Jenkins was a fascinating character. He had a natural inventive talent seen from his early youth. Even Jenkins noted the age of the spinning mechanical disk was dead as he moved into his optical electronic experiments.

Q: So what was Jenkins greatest achievement?

Godfrey: What I admire most about Jenkins was his mind. He had the capacity to think decades a head of his own time in projects like film and in the electro optical cells of both film and television. At the same time he had the know-how to tackle the projects needed in his day like the milk bottle, talking signs and gadgets for every day living.

I think is greatest achievement and certainly most lasting was the organization of what is today known as the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers [SMPTE]. Just prior to World War I the government was ready to mandate standards in the motion picture industry. Each manufacture used different systems trying to outflank their competition. Industrialists were suspicious of one another and early attempts and standardization had failed. In July 1916, Jenkins brought eleven engineers together to discuss the formation of a motion-picture engineering association. A month later papers were filed incorporating a new organization, as the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPE). It was the foundation from which the organization and its influence grew.   Initially, it eased the pressure from what could have been government mandates and it developed a system for the publication of papers call SMPE Transactions, which later became the SMPTE Journal and today the Motion Imaging Journal, as an open forum of ideas. Jenkins’ leadership created the organization, started its publications, formalized the committees and diverted time from his own work for service and the betterment of the industry. Today SMPTE is an International organization established by Jenkins almost 100 years ago.

About michael

Marketing & Sales Manager since 2012