October 24, 2012
No, Udvar-Hazy did not spring for a subscription to satellite radio and start listening to the all-Bruce Springsteen all-the-time station. It did, however, acquire a piece of communications history with the addition of a Sirius FM-4 broadcasting satellite.
That the technology, first conceptualized in the 1980s and launched in 2000, is now a piece of history just indicates how rapidly the industry is evolving as satellite technology becomes a greater part of every day life each year.
Satellite technologies only became a private enterprise a few decades ago. “One doesn’t even begin to think about the potential and beneficial use of communications satellites until the 1960s,” explains space history curator Martin Collins. NASA led the development with government programs but with the wave of privatization that peaked in the 70s and 80s, the industry went commercial. Largely used for broadcast television, satellite systems relied on what is called “geostationary orbit,” meaning the satellite orbited around the equator. Unfortunately for individuals dwelling in places distant from the equator, the signal could only reach so far.
At the time of its development, the SiriusXM satellite presented an innovative way to reach those consumers who had not been reached before by traditional satellite broadcasters. Using three satellites with a “highly inclined elliptical orbit,” SiriusXM was able to bring satellite radio to a greater geographic area. An ingenious solution, the strategy required more elaborate technologies. “When you use highly elliptical orbits,” says Collins, “you have to use more sophisticated approaches to tracking the satellite, to communicating with the satellite, to adjusting its orbit, to maintaining high performance, so you have these additional complicating factors.”
Over time, the industry caught up and can now produce single satellites that are capable of reaching distant consumers even while utilizing a geostationary orbit. “The new generation of their satellites are bigger, have more power, and use larger antennas to transmit their signals,” Collins explains.
There is one pretty large exception when it comes to phasing out highly elliptical orbits: Russia. The country began using the technology when it was still part of the Soviet Union and continues to use it because so much of its land mass is at high latitudes.
Developed under Robert Briskman, SiriusXM’s advances are part of what Collins says is an incredible shift away from ground-based communications. One of the greatest hallmarks of the early age of radio, begun more than 100 years ago, are the skeletal towers that transmit radio waves across the Earth’s surface. “One of our material cultural aspects of the 20th century is seeing these very tall towers around communities, whether it’s to broadcast television or radio,” says Collins. “With the Space Age, one in essence has the ability to elevate those towers above Earth and broadcast down and thus reach much greater geographic areas than one could do previously.”
Not only does the Sirius FM-4 satellite, which was built by Space Sytems/Loral for Sirius as a backup for the three-satellite system, represent a breakthrough in commercialized Space Age communications, it signals a broader shift that has remade our built environments and our daily experience.
“I think this move that sort of happened in the 80s and 90s to provide directly to individuals these kinds of satellite services, whether it was television or, in the case of Sirius, digital radio in your automobile or your home, were major, major transformations,” Collins says. Though he cites our rapacious appetite for entertainment, he says there are other notable integrations of the Space Age into daily life, from GPS in our cars to the very infrastructure of the business community.
August 31, 2012
When inventor Thomas Edison first began toying with the idea of improving upon moving image technology, he filed a note with the patents office in 1888, expressing his intent. He wrote that he hoped to invent a device that would, “do for the eye what the phonograph did for the ear.” When he finally invented (with considerable help from his assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson) and patented his single-camera device 115 years ago today, August 31, 1897, Edison was well on his way to launching the American film industry and even predicting America’s fascination with cats doing things on film (above).
Though Edison had received a visit from one of the early pioneers of moving pictures, Eadweard Muybridge, he turned down the opportunity to work with him, according to the Library of Congress and research from historians Charles Musser, David Robinson and Eileen Bowser. Sure, Muybridge had developed a way to use multiple cameras to capture a series of movements and then project is as a choppy but recognizable motion. But Edison didn’t think there was much potential in the multi-camera approach. Instead he labored (well, supervised others laboring) for three years to invent a single camera, the Kinetograph and single-user viewing device, the Kinetoscope, to record and view moving image in 1892.
Other than being a talented inventor, Edison also had the resources to attract other great talent, including Dickson, who moved his entire family from France to Edison’s research lab in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Smithsonian curator Ryan Lintelman explained in a 2010 podcast, “By the 1880s Edison became known as “the Wizard of Menlo Park” because these inventions that he was coming up with were so transformative that it was as if magic was involved.”
It wasn’t long after the kinetoscope’s invention that he began producing movies under his own studio, nicknamed the Black Maria because the structure that housed it resembled a police patrol car. Ever the businessman, Edison oversaw the production of star-studded shorts to help popularize his invention, including films with Annie Oakley, acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and Spanish dancer Carmencita. His subjects tended toward the sexy or the strong, proving the adage that sex sells. But one short titled The Boxing Cats (Professor Welton’s) also shows Edison’s ability to predict the insatiable market for watching cats do things, like fight each other in a tiny boxing ring.
“These first films they made for audiences were just short, simple subjects like women dancing or body builders flexing or a man sneezing or a famous couple kissing, and these early films have been called “the cinema of attractions” because they were shown as sort of these amazing glimpses of new technology rather then narrative plays on film,” explained Lintelman.
Unfortunately, the earliest surviving film from his studio is a little less titillating than the late 19th century equivalent of Brangelina kissing. Titled Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, or Fred Ott’s Sneeze, the film simply shows an employee hamming it up for the camera with a dramatized sneeze.
But if a man sneezes and no one hears it, is it really a sneeze? That was the dilemma Edison tried to solve as competitors began eating into his profits. In an attempt to synch sound and image, Edison added piped-in music via a phonograph to accompany the film. But the sound and image remained separate and often out of step, making it a less than enticing solution. Meanwhile, the allure of projected films that could finally entertain more than one person at a time called to businessmen in the industry. Another inventor, Thomas Armat, beat Edison to the punch. But Edison negotiated and bought the invention, changing its name from the Phantoscope to the Vitascope.
Filming news events, performances and tourism videos proved a profitable mix. But when audiences began to tire of the novelty, Edison turned to fiction-filmmaker Edwin S. Porter to create entertaining movies to be featured in the new storefront theaters known as nickelodeons.
As the popularity of these diverting films took off, Edison scrambled to own as much of the market as possible and protect his many related patents. After squaring off with a resistant competitor, Edison eventually negotiated a deal in 1908, according to the Library of Congress, that joined his company with Biograph and established a monopoly. His rise to the top, however, was short lived. Better technologies and more intriguing narratives were coming out of competing studios and though Edison continued to try to synch sound and image, his solutions were still imperfect. In 1918, Edison sold the studio and retired from his film career.
Though Hollywood is now synonymous with movie stars and big-name producers, it was actually Edison’s Black Maria in West Orange–the world’s first movie studio–that started the American film industry. Lintelman joked in his 2010 interview, “Most people can’t think of a place farther from Hollywood than New Jersey, right?” But Lintelman continued, “The American film industry was concentrated in that New Jersey, New York area from the 1890s until the 1920s. That’s when Hollywood became the movie capital of the world. Prior to that time, the most important factors were to be close to those manufacturing centers and investors in the markets. ”
Writing in an email, Lintelman, says, however, that he finds more similarities between online video culture than with Hollywood’s feature-length films. “It was a direct and democratic form of visual expression.” Viewers simply had to offer up their nickel to enjoy a brief diversion. Without audio or dialogue, the silent films could reach anyone, regardless of language. Though the subject matter could include spectacular news events or travel shots, most dealt with the daily experiences of man. “The filmmakers found humor in technological changes, transportation innovation, shifting demographics and social mores and the experience of city life,” writes Lintelman.
And viewers watched voraciously. After enjoying a kinetoscope film, people would mingle in the parlor space, discussing their favorites. With a variety of quick options in one place, viewers could create their own movie lineup and experience. “When you think about it,” Lintelman adds, “this is how we use the internet to view visual content today!”
July 10, 2012
Television penetrated the average American life with astonishing speed. At the end of World War II, just a half percent of U.S. households had a TV set; by 1962, that number had increased to 90 percent. But no matter how many TVs we bought and broadcasting stations we constructed, the reach of broadcast signals over long distances was still limited by a basic physical problem: the curvature of the earth.
“The TV signal, which is a radio wave signal, travels in straight lines,” says Martin Collins, a curator at the Air and Space Museum. “So if you’re having to overcome the curvature of the earth, signals can only go so far before they need to be picked up by an antenna and repeated.”
All this changed with the launch of a rocket in Cape Canaveral on July 10, 1962, exactly 50 years ago, today. The rocket carried the Telstar communications satellite, the first ever spacecraft that served to actively relay communications signals between distant points on earth. “In essence, it meant putting a relay station high up in orbit, instead of on the ground,” Collins says. ”From a technical perspective, the satellite was a nifty solution to a basic problem of physics.”
The spacecraft allowed broadcasting stations in both the U.S. and Europe to send signals up into space, bounce them off the satellite, and have them received across the Atlantic nearly instantaneously, revolutionizing mass communications between the continents. The device could also be used for phone calls and even faxes. To celebrate the achievement, authorities conducted an international demonstration of Telstar’s capabilities. “There was an exchange of programs—first from the United States to Europe, and then from Europe to the U.S.” says Collins. The American broadcast included a press conference with President Kennedy, a baseball game and images of famous places such as the Statue of Liberty and Mt. Rushmore.
Telstar, an experimental satellite, successfully relayed signals for just under a year before various technical problems forced it offline. But it played a crucial role in shaping the development of subsequent satellites and helping us understand how we could conduct communications through space. The satellite employed solid state technology, provided information about how electronics functioned in the radiation of the Van Allen Belt and assisted in developing techniques to establish contact between ground antennae and spacecraft.
The launch was also tremendously valuable for an American psyche rattled by the early Soviet dominance of space during the Cold War. “Telstar was an event that signaled U.S. achievement in an area that the Soviets themselves had not done,” Collins says. “The perception was that the Soviets were ahead in human space flight, and they were creating new accomplishments faster than the U.S., but Telstar represented an aspect of space flight that the U.S. was clearly first in.” The fact that the satellite was developed primarily by AT&T, a private firm, further served to demonstrate the power of private industry, as compared to the U.S.S.R.’s state-run model.
To celebrate the golden anniversary of the achievement, the Air and Space Museum—which is home to a backup duplicate of Telstar, produced along with the actual satellite launched—is hosting a day of special events on Thursday, July 12. A live satellite connection will be established with the Telecommunications Museum in Pleumeur-Bodou, France, which was the site of the original French ground antenna. The broadcast will be followed by a special symposium of space historians and industry experts, including Martin Collins, and will feature original footage from the 1962 broadcast. The event is open to the public, and will be available as a live webcast for those outside Washington.
In addition to the museum’s special events, there’s yet another way to celebrate Telstar’s legacy: by looking to the skies. Although the satellite was ultimately disabled by radiation in 1963, it has remained in orbit ever since, reliably circling the earth every 2.5 hours. Modern satellites have outstripped Telstar’s capabilities by several orders of magnitude, but the relic lives on as a physical reminder of our first successful foray into space communications.
April 5, 2012
Have you ever wanted to wander the halls of the Portrait Gallery or Smithsonian American Art Museum—or see some of their works, such as Andrew Wyeth’s ‘Dodges Ridge,’ in exquisite detail—but can’t make it to DC at the drop of a hat? Now, thanks to the museums’ collaboration with the Google Art Project, you’ll have the opportunity to virtually experience all they have to offer from the comfort of your own home.
On Tuesday, as part of a major expansion of the project, the museums officially became participants, joining 150 other museums and institutions from around the world. As part of the collaboration, Google has created ultra high-resolution scans of 149 of the Art Museum’s pieces and 192 of the Portrait Gallery’s are now freely available for anyone to see online. For some museums, Google has selected a signature image to present at a size over 1 billion pixels (1 gigapixel), allowing viewers to examine the paintings down to remarkably minute details. By comparison, a typical digital camera produces photographs around 10 megapixels in size, or 1000 times smaller than a gigapixel.
Additionally, Google has used its Street View technology to provide remote viewers the chance to virtually tour the halls and galleries of the museums. The company’s special panoramic camera was brought in this past December to capture the interiors, and users can navigate it much as they might tour the streets of the city outside using Street View.
The project was started in February 2011 by Google, and now encompasses more than 32,000 works in total, including paintings, sculptures and drawings. The Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York also became an official participant today, with more than 1500 pieces represented online. The Smithsonian Institution’s involvement started last year, when more than 200 works from the Freer Gallery were captured and made available as part of the first phase of the project. At the time, Julian Raby, the Freer and Sackler Gallery’s director, commended the level of detail made available in the online reproductions and felt the project would only increase interest in the museum’s offerings.
“The gigapixel allows you to see elements that you would really never ever see, certainly in traditional means of reproduction. You might see the crackle in the oil of a painting, you can sense the brushstroke in the artist’s hand and energy, you can see narrative details you would never see otherwise,” he said. “The traditional thing has been to say that any form of surrogate photograph, video, film will mean that people won’t come to the museums; actually, the experience is quite the opposite. In this particular case, I think it will create a sense of fascination that will engage completely new audiences.”
Check out the project to tour museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in London in addition to the three four Smithsonian museums that have joined on. You can wander the halls, select your favorite pieces, and build your own virtual gallery that brings together works from around the world. Google encourages art students and teachers to use the content as educational material, and plans to continue expanding the project in future years to make as much art as possible available to anyone, anywhere—so long as they have access to a computer.
March 30, 2012
As you sit down to read this blog post, there’s likely a cell phone in your pocket, on your desk or in your bag. Within the past hour—if not the past few minutes—you’ve probably used it to call someone, send a text or check email. This device probably also functions as your alarm clock, your calendar and even your camera. Suffice to say, cell phones are an irreplaceable part of our modern lives.
But how often do we stop to consider what’s inside them?
This question is at the heart of a new exhibition and research project in the early stage of development by Joshua Bell, an anthropologist and curator of globalization at the Natural History Museum, along with Joel Kuipers, an anthropologist at George Washington University. “The working title of the exhibition, which I hope will stick, is ‘A Natural History of the Mobile Phone,’” Bell says. “We want to get people to realize that this is not just a manmade object, but something that connects different people and different places around the world.”
Bell and Kuipers plan to explore the intersection of mobile phones and globalization via a pair of different approaches: the ecological impacts of phone production, and the cultural variability with which phones are used around the world.
Mobile phones are constructed using hundreds of different chemicals and elements, and each of these relies on a complex commodity chain with impacts around the world. Bell points out that the plastic in his phone originated from a petroleum product which was likely shipped to China for manufacturing, while the lithium battery includes ions mined in the salt flats of Bolivia and the capacitors include the element tantalum, which is produced in Congo and has been linked to local conflicts.
“If you think about anything you consume, all of its components come from somewhere else,” says Bell. “Your phone is not just connecting you to your parents or children that you talk to on it, but also to Chinese workers in an electronics factory, who are maybe being paid substandard wages, and electronic waste dumps, like in Ghana.” These connections have human and ecological consequences, and since the average American now buys a new phone every two years, the impacts can be steep.
The exhibition, Bell says, will also look at the cultural dimensions of cell phone use in different countries and in different communities. Bell and his research assistants plan to conduct research and interviews on cell phone use among four groups in the DC area: El Salvadoran communities in Mt. Pleasant (a neighborhood in Northwest Washington), Vietnamese communities in Falls Church, Virginia, an African immigrant group in Maryland and George Washington University students.
“Phones allow us to engage in amazing cultural innovation,” he says. “Everything from simply being able to talk to each other and video chat to new innovations in texting language.” The research team plans to track the diversity of these sorts of innovations across the different groups.
The project is still in its initial phases, so it will be some time before we see an exhibition on the Mall, but Bell already has in mind the effect he hopes the show will have on visitors. ”I would love for people to walk away from the exhibit realizing what is in a mobile phone, what it helps us to do, and the cultural variability of its use,” he says. “Cell phones are not the only objects that create global interconnections, but they are some of the most visible.”
Political Ecologies of the Cell Phone is an interdisciplinary project and a collaboration between GWU and the Smithsonian that explores the connections between the intimate and global connections made through cell-phones. Field research in the DC metro area is just beginning and workshops are planned for the Fall.