I was a graduate student at the University of Illinois’s Champaign-Urbana campus in the late 1960s. One afternoon, my advisor suggested that since I was interested in what science is and how it works, I might sign up for a course taught by his neighbor, a retired electrical engineering. Since my advisor was a good guy who offered sage counsel, I agreed.
His neighbor turned out to be Joseph Tykocinski Tykociner, whose work impacted people and institutions around the world across the past 120 years.
What did he do? First, he cleverly figured out what to do with his life. More specifically, he asked Madame Marie Curie (of radioactive research fame) to suggest interesting scientific questions needing answering. She said sending the world’s messages electronically was one, and so he might wish to visit London and talk to a guy named Marconi.
He did, and in 1901, while Marconi was on the west side of the Atlantic sending such messages, Tykociner was in London receiving them. No kidding.
Then, in 1904, he designed a radio link for Russian ships in both the Baltic and the Black Seas. I’m sure he got paid for this, but more interesting to me was the fact that he received a medallion from the Tsar for his efforts. I know because when he told us about this, he pointed to the second shelf from the bottom of the display cabinet next to where I sat in class every Thursday night at Professor Tykociner’s home. I can neither read Cyrillic script nor understand Russian, but everything he told us explained why the Tsar honored him in this way.
Ultimately, he wound up at the University of Illinois working on a problem long of interest to him: How to use sound to create marks on film such that when light was shone through them and onto a device for detecting it, the light created sound identical to that used to make the marks on the film. This ultimately produced movies Tykociner called “talkies” -- movies with sound arising from what was taking place on the screen.
If you Google Joseph Tykocinski Tykociner, you’ll find a video of a film made to explain to movie makers and theater owners how “talkies” work. This was necessary because these people questioned whether humans could integrate what they heard with what they saw.
What you won’t learn is how projection booths came to be, something Professor Tykociner explained one night before class. It turns out that when he showed his new equipment to a colleague, the man noted that while the invention was wonderful, the equipment was so noisy that it was hard to hear what was happening on the screen. Was there, he wondered, some way to dampen the noise?
And so in anticipation of demonstrating his equipment to the entire engineering faculty in room 100 -- the largest auditorium in the engineering building -- he bored a hole in the door his colleagues would use to enter from the main hallway. Then, while everyone seated themselves, he had the projector placed on a table of the appropriate height so the video portion of his presentation was projected through the hole and onto the screen at the front of the room. There were wires, of course, running from the projector into the speakers next to the screen.
The demonstration of sound on film was a resounding success and you know what began happening from then on all over the world.
Apparently the Dean of Engineering was not charmed with the hole in one of Room 100’s beautiful wooden doors. And so a bronze plug was placed in it to repair the damage and maybe even commemorate Joseph Tycocinski Tykosiner’s creativity. After all, he did invent technology that persisted until well after the appearance of television and the beginning of the electronic age. And, of course, the technology also enriched people’s lives worldwide.
Hank Slotnick is a retired UND professor who, with his wife, winters in Pima, Ariz., and summers in Debs.