The first words recorded on film by Józef Tykociński heralded a journey into the future and a gigantic change in the world of cinematography. His steadfastness in searching for the best conditions to develop his ideas took him on a journey that spanned nearly the whole world.
From his earliest years, Józef Tykociński was fascinated by technology. However, he did not intend to simply be a passive witness of its dynamic development; he wanted to participate in this process by becoming an engineer. His father, however, had completely different ideas about his future, as he planned to hire him in the family’s grain trading business. But young Józef was so determined to see the world and to realize his dreams that he left his family home at the age of 18 to go on a trip to the United States.
The pursuit of sound
Józef Tykociński was born in Włocławek in 1877, so his youth was spent during the period when Poland was still under occupation. His drive to search for the right place and conditions to realize his ideas was truly admirable and so were the concepts he wanted to put into practice.
He first came up with the idea to add sound to films during his time in the United States, when he visited one of the silent cinemas on New York’s Broadway. However, his initial attempt to combine images with sound ended in failure. Having spent two years across the Atlantic, he decided to return to Poland. His father no longer pressed Józef to get involved in the family business, and gave him his blessing to continue his engineering career.
Tykociński’s education gained momentum. He finished secondary school in Warsaw, then started technical studies in Germany. He did things his own way, and his persistence and diligence led him to the Marconi Company in London, where he worked on various projects, including the first transatlantic radio connection. From about 1904 until the Bolshevik Revolution he developed a radio communication system for the Russian fleet. At that time he made another attempt to add sound to film, again without success.
A new stage and a great disappointment
In 1918 he returned to Poland, where he became involved in many projects, including the foundation of the National Institute of Radio Technology. However, he did not stay in his homeland for too long. In 1920, he left for the US again to pursue his passion for experimental engineering. He started working at the University of Illinois, where he would gain access to the tools that enabled him to implement his of combining film and sound.
In the US, Tykociński started working with Jakob Kunz. He finally achieved his goal using a selenium photocell that Kunz had developed. In June 1922, he presented to the public the first film featuring synchronized sound achieved using his method. The inventor’s wife, Helena, lent her voice to the recording.
As Sławomir Łotysz writes, it was one of the first working versions of a sound-on-film recording, i.e. where the soundtrack is recorded on the film membrane. Although the screening of the film was a success and there was a lot of interest in new technologies at that time, the film industry was sceptical about this Polish invention. In addition, a dispute over patent rights discouraged the University of Illinois from promoting its technology. Tykociński finally obtained a patent for this technology in 1926. In the meantime, however, a number of inventors patented alternative technologies, and the Polish inventor lost the chance to become part of the Hollywood film industry.
A year later, the first sound movie, The Jazz Singer, whose sound accompaniment used a technology based on gramophone records, was shown in cinemas. In the archives of cinematography, this moment is regarded as the beginning of the sound film era.
Józef Tykociński did not only work on the use of sound in films. He held patents for underwater signalling, testing of high-voltage cables, and various antenna models that were prototypes of modern radar. Tykociński developed many valuable inventions in the field of electrical engineering. No wonder that he enjoys a reputation of being one of the greatest Polish engineers of the 20th century. He was ahead of his time, and with his ideas he constantly travelled to the future. He died in 1969.
- S. Łotysz, Polscy wynalazcy. Sylwetki 100 najznakomitszych polskich wynalazców [Polish inventors. Biographies of the top 100 Polish inventors], Pub. Dragon, Bielsko Biała 2018
- M. Kępa, The Scientist Behind The First Talkie: A Secret Polish History