Big Paul

an installation by Gebhard Sengmüller

My media-archaeological installation "Big Paul" proposes an alternative development in the history of television.

The first feasible idea for how a moving image could be broken down into lines and frames and thus prepared for electrical transmission was already developed in 1883 by the Berlin signal engineer Paul Nipkow. His Nipkow Disk enabled electro-mechanical television for the first time in the history of technology and in an astonishing simple way. In 1926 the Scottish inventor John Logie Baird succeeded in constructing a functional television system based on Nipkow's idea, the Televisor.

Why are we not living since then in a world in which television is produced and transmitted with the help of rapidly rotating disks? The main reason is the very low resolution of these first electro-mechanical television systems, which soon succumbed to an electronic TV system developed by David Sarnoff and Vladimir Zworykin at RCA. On the other hand, I found some historical references that question the inevitability of these developments - mechanical TV's replacement by cathode ray tube based electronic systems, as commonly described by historians of media and technology.

Therefore, "Big Paul" is a functional electro-mechanical television system, which retains the original Nipkow Disk, but enlarges it to a diameter of two meters, thus substantially increasing the number of transmittable image lines and the achievable image resolution. This means that, for the first time, a system of television is created that retains Nipkow's original idea, but allows it to function in contemporary quality. At the same time, I show an apparatus that - like cinema film and the phonograph, but unlike electronic television - can be comprehended and immediately experienced by the viewers.

The planned installation is a further step in my intensive media-archaeological exploration of media apparatuses of the nineteenth and twentieth century. In a fictive journey through time I introduce minor changes to a crucial forcation in media history and attempt to interpolate the impacts these changes could have had.


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