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Color Film (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

An object from my youth has disappeared: Photographic paper for printing from negatives. As a child I loved seeing a photograph appear slowly in a tray of developer. No more: With the digital revolution in full swing Kodak will stop making the paper this year.

Photography illustrated for me that scientists engage in creative acts, not just learning a list of facts. Take, for example, another Kodak innovation: Color film. It was invented by two friends who loved first and foremost, not photography, or chemistry, but music.

In 1917 two teenagers, Leopold Godowsky and Leopold Mannes, saw a blurry color movie. Dissatisfied with the image they decided, with the hubris of youth, to make a better color film.

At that time color photographs and movies were made by using three pieces of film, one for each primary color. These separate pieces were combined in a projector to create a full color image, yet always blurry because the three pieces of film never aligned correctly.

Godowsky and Mannes realized that to get sharp color images they needed all three layers to be part of the same piece of film. In their lab they found it very tricky to create a thin layer for each color, then to separate these with an even thinner layer of clear gelatin.

Although dedicated to making color film, music often interrupted their nineteen year quest. Godowsky studied violin at the University of California, and Mannes studied piano at Harvard. Then Mannes won Pulitzer and Guggenheim scholarships to study music composition in Italy.

By 1930 they found their experiments so complex that they could no longer fund them from their musical performance fees. The Research Director for Kodak had learned of their work. He hired them to work in the Kodak laboratories. So, they spent days in the lab, then evenings performing at the nearby Eastman School of Music, although the music wasn't completely separate from their lab work.

Godowsky and Mannes would sing as they worked in their labs, not for fun, but as an essential part of developing their color film. In their darkened lab they were unable to see a watch, so they timed the reactions by singing passages from their favorite musical pieces, whose length they knew by heart.

By 1935 they perfected their color film. In an odd press conference, the inventors announced their discovery, showed sample photos, and then played a violin and piano sonata for the reporters. After this they developed no more film, but instead returned full time to musical careers.

No suprise or discontinuity, here, though, because creating color film or playing a sonata are both creative acts. So, to continue playing music for them, was one and the same, at a fundamental level, with developing another type of film.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises