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Victorian Telepresence Today: Telectroscope Connects New York and London

May 23, 2008 | John Serrao
Victorian Telepresence Today: Telectroscope Connects New York and London
     By John Serrao, Telepresence Options

telectroscope_7.jpgSomewhere between Orwell's Telescreen and the Star Trek Holodeck, lies another fictional idea, this one from the Victorian era, where a magical tunnel connects two remote ends of the earth together.   This intriguing device was trying to transmit images of people half way around the world while the participant would, simultaneously, be able to watch their audience.  Fast forward 100 years and this dream has been transformed into reality. 

This device is known as The Telectroscope, an art installation created by the British artist Paul St George in cooperation with this main sponsors Artichoke and Tiscali Communications.  St George and his sponsors first explained the device with a wonderfully fabricated story involving St George's great grandfather and some old fashioned schematics.  However, the real story behind this strange device is as fascinating - and fictitious - as the one St. George and Co. dreamt up.

Above: The Telectroscope, New York Side

In 1877, the New York Sun ran an article by 'The Electrician,' where he talks about a device called the 'Electroscope', the forerunner to St George's installation.  Below is an excerpt from that article (which can be found here in its entirety).  Regular readers of Telepresence Options may find it particularly interesting:

"By means of the electroscope, merchants will be able to exhibit their goods, or samples of them, to any customer supplied the same instruments, where in Liverpool, London, Paris, Berlin, Calcutta, Peking, San Francisco, or New Orleans.  A combination of the electroscope and telephone will be made which will permit people, not only to converse with each other, no matter how far they are apart, but also to look into each other's eyes and watch their every expression, gesture and motion while in the electroscope."

telectroscope_6.jpg The Electrician's 19th century model of the electroscope very closely resembles the reality of today's telepresence rooms, in theory at least.  His scientifically weak explanation of how the device worked was also featured in the article, but it bears little resemblance to how an actual electroscope or telepresence room works.

However, this scant scientific evidence was enough to get the mythical electroscope successfully submitted to the Scientific American for review.  Here we learn that the device will use the reflectivity of selenium to turn moving pictures into transmittable light signatures that can be widely distributed - a design similar to that which first brought the world television tubes and the modern mass media.

Above, A fake rendering of what the tunnel may have looked like

In line with these fanciful developments, 'The Electrician' was revealed to be Louis Figuier, a French scientist and professor, but not before the supposed functions of the device led to rampant speculation that something like it actually existed.   In 1897, the New York Times   ran an article about the 'telectroscope' and its detailed interworkings (note that the electroscope gained a letter 't' somewhere during this time, all due to a typo amazingly enough). 

This house-of-cards was later added to by none other than Mark Twain who wrote an article for the London Times in 1904 featuring the 'telelectroscope' - firmly cementing the device into the world's psyche.

Which brings us back to where we started, with St George's artistic vision. 

"We all have that idea in our head if we could make a tunnel to the other side of the Earth, but we are not all crazy enough to actually try and do it."

telectroscope_4.jpgWith that in mind, St George decided to take on the challenge of actually 'constructing' a tunnel to display moving images between two locations, similar to the stories of the late 19th century.  He and his sponsors set out to connect two of the largest cities from that era - London and New York.  Luckily, the tunnel this artwork employs is distinctly from the 21st century.  Each end of the device contains an HD camera connected together by an advanced video network, simplifying the digging process immensely. 

Staring into either the London or New York end of the telectroscope will provide a view of the other side, completing the original idea first dreamt up in the 1877 electroscope.  While the actual interworkings of the device are not public knowledge, it likely employs some beam-splitting technology similar to some telepresence rooms, in order to make it appear as if the participants are truly looking into each other's eyes.

Additionally, St George went the extra mile and styled both ends in an elaborate steampunk facade, evoking both the style and technological wonderings of the Victorian era.  It makes for an impressive - and functional - public art display.  You can listen to BBC Correspondent, Matthew Price, who talks about his visit to the New York side of the telectroscope.

If you want to see the device in action yourself, you better make your plans quickly.  This exhibit only runs until June 15th on the shores of the East River in the DUMBO neighborhood of Brooklyn and also in the shadow of the Tower Bridge along the River Thames in London.

Additional Reading:

The Telectroscope Project [via Tiscali]
Telescope Takes a Long View, to London [via New York Times]
Giant 'telescope' links London, New York [via CNN]

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