A Closer Look

Michael Snow’s 1967 experimental film Wavelength consists essentially of an extraordinarily slow 45-minute zoom on a photograph on the wall of a room. William C. Wees of McGill University points out that this raises a philosophical question: What visual event does this zoom create? In a tracking shot, the camera moves physically forward, and its viewpoint changes as a person’s would as she advanced toward the photo. In Wavelength (or any zoom) the camera doesn’t move, and yet something is taking place, something with no analogue in ordinary experience.

“If I actually walk toward a photograph pinned on a wall, I find that the photograph does, indeed, get larger in my visual field, and that things around it slip out of view at the peripheries of my vision. The zoom produces equivalent effects, hence the tendency to describe it as ‘moving forward.’ But I am really imitating a tracking shot, not a zoom. … I think it is safe to say that no perceptual experience in the every-day world can prepare us for the kind of vision produced by the zoom.”

“What, in a word, happens during a viewing of that forty-five minute zoom? And what does it mean?”

(From Nick Hall, The Zoom: Drama at the Touch of a Lever, 2018.)

An Audible End

world war i armistice signature

World War I’s final ceasefire went into effect at a precise moment: 11:00 a.m. Paris time on Nov. 11, 1918. The French had worked out a way of recording sound signals on film — they used it to infer the position of enemy guns by determining the time between the sound of a shell’s firing and its explosion. This gives us a visual record of the end of the fighting, six representative seconds from the periods before and after the armistice. (Note, though, that the minute immediately before and the one immediately after the ceasefire aren’t shown, “to emphasize the contrast.”)

I don’t have an original source for this — Time magazine credits the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

In the Pink

It is not every maiden, in these prosaic days, who can summon the ‘tell-tale blood’ to her cheeks at will, or silently reveal by an opportune roseate flush, those inward feelings to which many young ladies experience such difficulty in giving verbal expression. But as the value of the blush, as a highly effective weapon in the feminine armory, is still universally recognized by the sex, although it would appear to have somewhat fallen into desuetude, French ingenuity has been at the pains of devising a mechanical appliance for the instantaneous production of a fine natural glow upon the cheek of beauty, no matter how constitutionally lymphatic or philosophically unemotional its proprietress may be. This thoughtful contrivance is called ‘The Ladies’ Blushing Bonnet,’ to the side ribbons of which — those usually tied under the fair wearer’s chin — are attached two tiny but powerful steel springs, ending in round pads, which are brought to bear upon the temporal arteries by the action of bowing the head, one exquisitely appropriate to modest embarrassment, and by artificially forcing blood into the cheeks cause them to be suffused with ‘the crimson hue of shame’ at a moment’s notice. Should these ingenious head coverings become the fashion among girls of the period, it will behoove ‘young men about to marry’ to take a sly peep behind the bonnet-strings of their blushing charmers immediately after proposing, in order to satisfy themselves that the heightened color, by them interpreted as an involuntary admission of reciprocated affection, is not due to the agency of a carefully adjusted ‘blushing bonnet.’

London Telegraph, via Robinson [Ill.] Constitution, Dec. 1, 1880

“The Dead Alive in the Biograph”

A pathetic incident in connection with a biograph scene occurred in Detroit, Mich., March 17th last. A view made at the occupation of Peking was being flashed across the screen. It represented a detachment of the Fourteenth United States Infantry entering the gates of the Chinese Capital. As the last file of soldiers seemed literally stepping out of the frame on to the stage, there arose a scream from a woman who sat in front.

‘My God!’ she cried hysterically, ‘there is my dead brother Allen marching with the soldiers.’

The figure had been recognized by others in the audience as that of Allen McCaskill, who had mysteriously disappeared some years before. Subsequently Mrs. Booth, the sister, wrote to the War Department and learned that it really was her brother whose presentment she so strangely had been confronted with.

“Photography,” Popular Science News, October 1901

All Together Now

When London’s Millennium Bridge opened in 2000, it began to sway unexpectedly under the footsteps of the inaugural crowds. The danger of vibration in bridges was well known — the Albert Bridge (below) still bears a sign dating from 1873 that warns soldiers to break step while crossing. But the Millennium Bridge revealed a new phenomenon: As the pedestrians felt the bridge swing beneath them, they altered their movements to maintain their balance and began to sway together in step. This increased the amplitude of the bridge’s oscillations, a factor called synchronous lateral excitation.

The bridge was closed on opening day and underwent $9 million in repairs to increase its damping. It reopened in February 2002 and is now free of vibration, but it’s still known affectionately as the “wobbly bridge.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Photophone


Alexander Graham Bell believed that his greatest achievement was the photophone, a device that could transmit speech on a beam of light. The speaker’s voice would strike the back of a mirror, modulating a reflected ray. When the ray reached the receiver the process was reversed, producing sound waves.

“I have heard articulate speech by sunlight!” Bell wrote to his father in 1880. “I have heard a ray of the sun laugh and cough and sing! … I have been able to hear a shadow and I have even perceived by ear the passage of a cloud across the sun’s disk. You are the grandfather of the Photophone and I want to share my delight at my success.”

Bell hoped the invention might supplant expensive telephone lines, but it proved too vulnerable to weather conditions and fell by the wayside. That didn’t surprise the New York Times, which wrote in an editorial, “Until [the public] sees a man going through the streets with a coil of No. 12 sunbeams on his shoulder, and suspending them from pole to pole, there will be a general feeling that there is something about Professor Bell’s photophone which places a tremendous strain on human credulity.”

“Bike Keeps Family in Stitches”

Carrying four persons and a sewing machine, the world’s weirdest bicycle recently had a tryout in Chicago, Ill. The two-story vehicle, known as the ‘Goofybike,’ is the creation of Charles Steinlauf. It carries the whole Steinlauf family. The inventor rides at the top and guides the contraption by means of a huge automobile steering wheel. Mrs. Steinlauf sits below, operating a sewing machine, while her son pedals behind and her daughter rides on the handlebars in front. When the odd vehicle is at rest, the projecting legs of the sewing machine prevent the lofty cycle from tipping over.

Popular Science, October 1939

The Spirit Battery


When the electric telegraph was making its appearance in the 1840s, it was strangely easy to confuse it with spiritualism: Both were uncanny means of talking with absent people through systems of symbols. In a bid for legitimacy, spiritualists appealed to the principles of “electrical science.” In his 1853 book The Present Age and Inner Life, Andrew Jackson Davis proposed a “spirit battery” by which a medium could improve her contact with the spirit world by asking her guests to hold a magnetic rope whose ends were dipped in water-filled buckets made of copper and zinc:

The males and females (the positive and negative principles) are placed alternately; as so many zinc and copper plates in the construction of magnetic batteries. The medium or media have places assigned them on either side of the junction whereat the rope is crossed, the ends terminating each in a pail or jar of cold water. … But these new things should be added. The copper wire should terminate in, or be clasped to, a zinc plate; the steel wire should, in the same manner, be attached to a copper plate. These plates should be dodecahedral, or cut with twelve angles or sides, because, by means of the points, the volume of terrestrial electricity is greatly augmented, and its accumulation is also, by the same means, accelerated, which the circle requires for a rudimental aura (or atmosphere) through which spirits can approach and act upon material bodies.

“We are negative to our guardian spirits; they are positive to us,” Davis wrote. “The whole mystery is illustrated by the workings of the common magnetic telegraph. The principles involved are identical.”

Alarming bonus factoid: When Samuel Morse appeared before Congress in 1838 to seek funding for an experimental telegraph line, some congressmen introduced amendments that would provide funds for research on mesmerism as well. The committee chair wrote, “It would require a scientific analysis to determine how far the magnetism of mesmerism was analogous to the magnetism to be employed in telegraphs.” When the bill came to a vote, 70 congressmen left their seats; many hoped “to avoid spending the public money for a machine they could not understand.”

(From Jeffrey Sconce, Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television, 2000.)


The job of creating voices for Munchkins and Winkies in The Wizard of Oz fell to vocal arranger Ken Darby. “In those days we didn’t have the technical facilities we have now, like speeding up tape,” he said. “I had to figure out how to make the Munchkins sound high-pitched”:

I worked it out mathematically, using a metronome. Then I went to the head of the sound department, Doug Shearer. I told him that if we could record at sixty feet per minute instead of the normal ninety feet per minute and if we sang at a slower pace in a different key, when we played it back at ninety it should sound right. He said there was no way to do that because we didn’t have a variable-speed recorder. Then he said he would try to manufacture a new gear for the sound-recording machine. And it worked. I had the singers sing very slowly and distinctly so the words would be clear when we played it back at a faster speed. Ding … Dong … the … witch … is … dead. When we played it back, it was a perfect one-fourth higher.

“None of the midgets did any of the singing. None of them could carry a tune.”

(From Aljean Harmetz, The Making of The Wizard of Oz, 1977.)