This year the Society of Motion Pictures Engineers is celebrating its centennial at the SMPTE 2016 Technical Conference & Exhibition at the Loews Hollywood Hotel with a special historical exhibit dedicated to the life and work of its founder and first president Charles Francis Jenkins.
The exhibit includes a collection of early film cameras, projectors and even a film replicator and other artifacts invented and built by Jenkins.
Most of these haven’t been seen in public for decades and resided on the basement shelves of the Wayne County Historical Museum in Richmond, Ind., says Carl Dole, product development engineer at Belden and docent for the exhibit.
Jenkins’ family moved to Richmond, when he was young, so after his death in 1934 his widow donated the items to the county museum, says Dole, who works for Belden’s cable and wiring division located in Richmond.
From a historical perspective, perhaps, the most important artifact in the exhibit is an early hand-cranked projector that used a carbon-arc-type lamp to project movies for an audience.
“So, how fast would you crank it?” Dole asks, rhetorically. “Well, about whatever seemed the right speed.”
According to Dole, Jenkins is credited with developing the first motion picture projection equipment that was capable of public exhibition.
A building in Richmond, which still stands today and at the time of Jenkins belonged to his cousin, was the site of the first public motion picture projection in 1895, and that event is commemorated with a plaque affixed to the structure, says Dole.
The organization Jenkins founded in 1916 was originally called the Society of Motion Picture Engineers. Television wouldn’t be added till much later.
But the exclusion of TV from its name is not an indication that Jenkins, an inventor who held more than 200 patents, was not interested in the medium.
The centerpiece of the SMPTE Jenkins exhibit for those with a TV bent has to be a Jenkins consumer TV receiver and display from the 1920s.
Jenkins, who at the time called the acts of transmitting, receiving and displaying moving pictures over the air “radio-vision,” used the lower portion of the shortwave radio band to transmit pictures with about 60 lines of resolution, says Dole.
The inventor is credited with owning the first TV station on the air, W3XK, which was operated by Jenkins Laboratories in Wheaton, Md. The 5 kW station delivered 60 lines of resolution, says Dole.
The radio-vision image display on exhibit is a mechanical-optical device that relied on a spinning disk with a series of small lenses arranged as a partial spiral. The on-and-off flicker of a special lamp modulated light that passed through the lenses. That light was reflected off a mirror on the inside rear wall of the display’s cabinet and illuminated a translucent screen on the front of the device for viewers to watch, says Dole.
The display was connected to the Jenkins radio-vision receiver in a fashion reminiscent of how a computer monitor is connected to a CPU.
By itself, radio-vision was silent. “If they had audio, they transmitted it over a radio station,” he says.
Behind the television relic hanging on the rear wall of the exhibit is information, including call sign, power level and lines of resolution of TV stations of the era. Mixed into the display is a photo of a Jenkins product that resides in a TV museum near Columbus, Ohio.
“This box (the Jenkins product in the picture) is a radio-vision kit called the JK 20 (for Jenkins Kit 20),” says Dole.
While there were no JK 20 parts in the box when it was donated to the museum, an instruction sheet affixed inside on the top of the box included a parts list, a drawing of a completed kit and a list of stations on the air at the time. “You got this and built it yourself,” says Dole.
Unfortunately for Jenkins, as his television business began to flourish the stock market crash of 1929 made discretionary purchases of non-essentials like TV unthinkable for most Americans, and the inventor was forced to sell the business, says Dole.
The exhibit also features other highlights of Jenkins’ life as an inventor, including acknowledgement of his development of disposable paper milk containers and the machinery needed to manufacture them — his most commercially successful invention — aviation components, including an air scoop to give pilots fresh air and a steam-driven touring car.
The Society of Motion Picture Engineers was formed in 1916 largely to tackle an issue the moving media industry faces to this very day: interoperability, says Dole.
Jenkins seemed like a natural to lead the new organization because of the major role he played in convincing early film pioneers to develop standards so that motion film capture and projection wouldn’t remain proprietary, says Dole.
He was helped along on this standardization mission by a demand from the government for a film standard so that the military, which wished to use film for training, wouldn’t have to buy multiple motion picture systems that were incompatible with one another, says Dole.
“It got down to the point that the government said [to the industry], ‘You either develop a standard, or we will pick one,’” says Dole.
The importance of standards and interoperability to the motion picture industry is reflected in Jenkins’ inaugural message from October 1916 after becoming SMPE president. That message hangs on the wall in the exhibit.
In it, Jenkins says in part:
The motion picture is making the whole world kin. It is the only universal language. It is making the world one great family. Every new industry standardizes sooner or later, whether we will it or not. It is our duty, therefore, as engineers, to wisely direct this standardization….
At the conclusion of this year’s SMPTE Technical Conference & Exhibition, the Jenkins artifacts will be returned to the Wayne County Historical Museum, says Dole.
They will travel back to Indiana as they arrived, in new cases that doubled as display cases for the SMPTE exhibit. Belden supported the SMPTE exhibit by funding the cases and other expenses involved with the exhibit, says Dole.
As for Dole, he will return to Richmond to resume his duties at Belden. But his affinity for television and historical interest has inspired him to take on his own mission: to build his own JK 20. “Of course, there won’t be anything to receive, so I’ll also have to build a low-power transmitter that can sit at the other end of the table.”
(Editor’s Note: The Jenkins exhibit at the 2016 SMPTE Technical Conference & Exhibition is open today until 2 p.m. PT.)