from Tainter Papers, NMAH
Bell and the white-haired San Diegan, 83 years old now, resident here for 34 years, were associates. More than half a century ago they stood one day in Washington, D. C., each at a strange device. Tainter with one piece of apparatus, was atop a schoolhouse. With another, Bell waited anxiously in a window of their laboratory, 1300 feet away. All the world knows about the words, "Mr. Watson, come here; I want you," spoken by Bell to his assistant on a still earlier day, when the telephone came into being. Lost in the shuffle of time are words spoken by Tainter in Washington that other day. Yet the occasion was scarcely less significant. Eagerly, Tainter spoke into a microphone that looked outwardly much like the mouthpiece of an old-fashioned telephone. At the other station, Bell listened intently at another device which resembled some sort of telephone. Yet there were not ordinary 'phones; no wires connected them. "Professor Bell," Tainter called into the mouthpiece, "if you understand what I say, come tothe window and wave your hat." Anxious seconds, and then there was Bell in the window, Tainter related, "frantically waving his hat." That day, in 1880, 15 years before Marconi sent his first signals by wireless in Italy, five years before Thomas Alva Edison devised another forerunner, an apparatus for sending signals from moving trains and between ships by induction, the human voice was sent through free space.
Tainter and Bell didn't fully understand what forces they had set in play. That was even eight years before Heinrich Hertz, the German physicist and electrician, laid the foundation and understanding for electrical wave communication by describing and demonstrating the "Hertzian waves." Their "photophone" and their method were somewhat different than the instrument and the system later employed in wireless and radio. Yet they were basically the same; instead of waves generated by man-made electrical devices, they were using the energy waves of relfected sunbeams. And their device even became known for a time as the "radiophone." Too, although they first used only the visible light rays of the sun as the medium for transmission, they soon came within a fraction of stumbling upon the very principle of radio communication, found that the mysterious invisible rays worked too.
Telling of this first "radiophone," Tainter delved into old and aging notebooks in which he carefully recorded each day his work and experiments and findings, notebooks which developed into 13 full volumes during his vast and varied studies. "Saturday, April 2d, 1881," a page in one of the volumes reveals, "We have made some very important experiments today with the spectrum, and have succeeded in obtaining sounds through the whole length of the visible spectrum of the sun, with the exception of the extremem violet rays . . . The sounds were not only heard from the visible rays, but also from the invisible rays, beyond the red end of the spectrum. . . ." At that time, too, Tainter noticed another astonishing and puzzling thing. These mysterious rays carried the sounds through an inch thick bar of hard rubber! Thus it was that Bell and he all but hit upon the basic principle of radio transmission. And, Tainter recalled, their device was called the "radiophone" for atime. Bell named the device the "photophone" in reporting on it to the American Association for Advancement of Science in 1880. But soon afterward, when he went to France to receive the 50,000-franc Volta award and the decoration of the Legion of Honor for his invention of the telephone, he exhibited and described the photophone there, and the French physicist, Mercadier, suggested "radiophone" would be a more suitable name. And so it was called for a time. But Bell, his assiciate recalled, somehow preferred the original name and returned to it.Tainter, though, always had held to "radiophone."
"We might have continued on into some of the things that came in wireless and radio in later years," he says in smiling contemplation, "had wenot been so busy with the telephone, the graphophone and other things and let the 'radiophone' slide." He told of his association with Bell, from 1879 to 1886, and of the workings of that first "radiophone."
A young man operating a shop for making scientific instruments in Cambridge, Mass., across the street from Harvard college, for whose professors he often made equipment, Tainter received a visit in 1879 from "A. Graham Bell." Bell asked him to become his associate and g with him to Washington, where he proposed to establish his laboratory. Tainter did. "Bell had already invented the telephone, of course," Tainter related, "and at that time was interested in developing apparatus for communicating without wires, particularly between ships or between ship and shore. he had the ideas for this and other inventions, but he was not experienced in constructing apparatus, so he wished me to handle that end of the work. It had been found that metallic selenium in the crystalline state was an electrical conductor and, moreover, that its electrical conductivity varied with the amount of light shining upon the substance." This, he explained, gave Bell an idea for using selenium as ameans of communicating without wires. He would focus a beam of light upon the substance, vary the intensity of this beam by the sound of the human voice and cause an electrical circuit, in which the selenium would be connected, to reproduce the voice.
That was what he and Tainter succeeded in doing in 1880. Their transmitter was a telephone microphone, with the diaphragm fitted to receive the sound waves of the human voice on one side and with a mirror on the other. A beam of light was reflected from the mirror to the selenium in the receiver. The voice waves bent the diaphragm, alternately concave and convex, This alternately concentrated and weakened the light upon the selenium, and the consequent variations in its conductivity caused the electrical circuit to reproduce the sounds of the voice from the transmitter. And those mysterious invisible rays did the same thing!
While he was one of the leading inventors of that amazing era which produced Bell, Edison, Marconi and others, Tainter, remaining in the role of inventor rather than venturing into the spotlight role of the developer, builder and seller of the devices of his creation, has been little known in the popular mind. Yet, Bell always credited him with being of great assistance to him. In that 1880 report on the "photophone,"he said, "it is greatly due to the genius and perseverence of my friend, Mr. Sumner Tainter, of Watertown, Mass., that the problem of producing and reproducing sound by the agency of light has at last been successfuly solved."
Tainter has scores of patents in his name. Besides being associate inventor of the "photophone," or "radiophone," he is credited wth invention ofthe dictaphone, of that rival to Edison's phonograph, the graphophone, and of the first engraved and first disk talking-machine records. It was his talking-machine inventions with which the old Graphophone Co. was operating when the historic lawsuit between this company and Edison's developed, ending in a compromise concerning use of the conflicting patent claims.
The San Diegan was awarded a gold medal at the Paris Electrical exhibition of 1881 for his part in the invention of the "photophone." In 1889, he was made "Officer de l'Instruction Publique" of France for his graphophone inventions. These also won him Philadelphia's John Scott medal in 1900 and another from the Panama Pacific International exposition at San Francisco in 1915. The American Association for Advancement of Science made his a fellow in 1880 for his work on the "photophone," and just recently the society awarded him the coveted honor of feloow emeritus fo his more than 50 years of membership.
At the turn of the century, overwork broke Tainter's health, and he has lived in semi-retirement since. For awhile he carried on his experiments in a Sixth ave. laboratory here and later in one at his home. Now, though, his health will not permit even his home experimentation. But hisblue eyes remain bright and alert, his keen mind still ponders the problems of science and invention, and he has outlived Bell, Edison, Marconi and many another great of his era.
Source: Tainter Papers, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D. C.