Dr H E Licks and the Diaphote, 1880
If you happen to live in a place called Bethlehem, the one I’m talking about is in Pennsylvania, then it is a copywriter’s dream if you happen to come up with something that is extraordinary. The town’s paper, The Daily Times, ran a story entitled “A New Marvel in Bethlehem” in its edition of February 10, 1880. And what was this new marvel? A diaphote, that’s what.
Local inventor, Dr H E Licks, after toiling on the project for three years, announced to the astonished community that he had perfected an instrument by which the colours and form of an object could be transmitted along the wire of a telegraph. We would recognise the concept as a form of television. Licks called his invention a diaphote, a compound noun using the Greek preposition dia, meaning through, and phote, light. The claim generated such interest that over the next few days or so other newspapers with wider circulations picked it up.
One such was a Washington paper, The Bee, which enthralled its readership with a lengthy description of an invention it dubbed as “one of the most wonderful of the present day”. Consisting of a receiving mirror, wires, a battery and a reproducing speculum. The mirror, six inches by four, consisted of seventy-two plates, to each of which a wire was attached. The wires ran to a galvanic battery and connected to the receiving speculum. “When the circuit is closed”, The Bee reported, “the rays of light are conducted through an ordinary camera, and the accompanying heat produces chemical changes in the amalgam of the mirror, which, modifying the electric current, cause similar changes in the reproducing speculum”.
As well as awe at this major development in the world of communications, the newspapers gave its readers, courtesy of Licks, some sense of what this marvel could be used for. There was no suggestion that the machine capable of transmitting moving pictures in colour would be used for something as trivial and time-wasting as becoming a medium for popular entertainment. There were far more sensible things it could be used for, the Iola Register from Kansas reporting on March 5, 1880 that “with this instrument, fitted up with glasses and wires, a signal officer on a railroad will be able to see one hundred miles of track at one time”.
Despite the interest generated, there is no evidence that this wondrous contraption was ever seen, let alone a public demonstration. All the detail that the press had published had come directly from Licks. Suspicions that it had all been an elaborate hoax were heightened when in March 1880 stories appeared in the press of an invention, attributed to a Mr T J McTighe and the Connelly Brothers, that allowed people to see each other when they used the telephone, the telephote or what we would know nowadays as a videophone.
However, confirmation that it was indeed a leg-pull didn’t come until 1917 when Licks confessed all in his book, Recreations in Mathematics. Licks himself, it would appear, wasn’t all that he seemed to be, probably just the pseudonym of a professor of engineering at Lehigh University, Mansfield Merriman.
Sadly, the latest marvel from Bethlehem proved to be an ingenious hoax, but, truth being stranger than fiction, a form of diaphote and, indeed, a telephote, made a significant impact on our lives in the 20th century.
If you enjoyed this, check out Fifty Scams and Hoaxes by Martin Fone