I am an Iconoscope

We’d never seen an iconoscope before. And that’s reason enough to watch the quirky Japanese, first-person video of a retired broadcast engineer’s loving restoration. (Embedded below.)

Quick iconoscope primer. It was the first video camera tube, invented in the mid-20s, and used from the mid-30s to mid-40s. It worked by charging up a plate with an array of photo-sensitive capacitors, taking an exposure by allowing the capacitors to discharge according to the light hitting them, and then reading out the values with another electron scanning beam.

The video chronicles [Ozaki Yoshio]’s epic rebuild in what looks like the most amazingly well-equipped basement lab we’ve ever seen. As mentioned above, it’s quirky: the iconoscope tube itself is doing the narrating, and “my father” is [Ozaki-san], and “my brother” is another tube — that [Ozaki] found wrapped up in paper in a hibachi grill! But you don’t even have to speak Japanese to enjoy the frame build and calibration of what is probably the only working iconoscope camera in existence. You’re literally watching an old master at work, and it shows.

You could argue that the iconoscope is the precursor to the CCD camera of today, which also uses capacitors to store the image. In that sense, it’s not so weird. But old TV tech is full of yet stranger devices. If you’d like to start down that rabbit hole, try the Nipkow Disk camera or the Eidophor projector.

Thanks [Ed], and friends, for the tip!

26 thoughts on “I am an Iconoscope

  1. How fantastic is that!! What a great build and a memorial to the hard work and dedication of early television engineering by rebuilding what still is a great camera. I have to day his lab is almost as fantastic and I’m very jealous.

  2. Sometimes I think of the days, when everything was analog.
    There was no digital storage, no compression, no digital signal processing, and yet we managed to have 24h radio and TV, had music libraries, flew planes around the world, etc.

    Somehow it worked.

      1. On my digital cablebox I get the news stations like CNBC in the glorious resolution of 480×576.
        Yay for the wonders of modern digital advanced 2017 technology eh. That was called ‘HQ’ on youtube you know! (Back in 2006..)

        Incidentally, German TV did broadcast quite late for European standards back in the analog days. most of Europe closed at around 12:00 but German TV went on until 3 or so?
        And in the US they also closed at night, depending where you were at 2AM or earlier even, so that’s not unusual.
        And even today at night most stations basically close down by showing a repeat loop or goddamn shopping network broadcasts.

        1. We have HD… except when our local stations put up an overlay…

          So anytime there is a weather warning, school closing, or they put up the station ID bug, we drop down to SD. :(

          So in other words, we only really get the commercials in HD.

    1. Back in the 1970’s the stations here (Idaho) shut down at 10 PM with the National Anthem followed by a test pattern for a bit then dead air. By the late 80’s or early 90’s the overnight infomercials began, ushering in the era of 24/7 broadcasting.

    2. Not so fast: iconoscope was foreseen as the main digital storage in Von Neumann’s “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Draft_of_a_Report_on_the_EDVAC#Memory_design) in 1945, and the closely related Williams-Kilburn tube was used in the first true stored-program computer, the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manchester_Small-Scale_Experimental_Machine#Williams.E2.80.93Kilburn_tube) in 1948.

      So, there are no such days when everything was analog. Analog and digital worlds are linked, only nostalgia makes them feel better than the other.

      For more insights, check my hackaday.io project logs: https://hackaday.io/project/21193-aluminimum.

    3. Not so fast: iconoscope was foreseen as the main digital storage in Von Neumann’s “First Draft of a Report on the EDVAC” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Draft_of_a_Report_on_the_EDVAC#Memory_design) in 1945, and the closely related Williams-Kilburn tube was used in the first true stored-program computer, the Manchester Small-Scale Experimental Machine in 1948.

      So, there are no such days when everything was analog. Analog and digital worlds are linked, only nostalgia makes them feel better than the other.

      For more insights, check my hackaday.io project logs: https://hackaday.io/project/21193-aluminimum.

  3. Wow. This isn’t hacking. It is a professional quality build. I especially liked how everything clicked together with precision. It is the electronics equivalent of a working model V12 engine. It would be nice to know the circuit he used and how he interfaced with the tube.

    1. Yeah, right? The video says it’s a “high res” tube with 550 lines (or something like that). But yeah, it’s beautiful.

      The Wikipedia article on iconoscopes mentions the local crowding-out of dark sections, leading to a particular look. It’s very distinctive, and evokes of an era. Nostalgic tech. Romantic tech?

    2. Agree, and this is certainly a big value to have a such record of what a camera signal really look like at this time. I see too many times historical images intentionally digitally compressed to very low quality to look old. This bad practice make be angry when a see FFT blocs artefacts into images that was initially recorded in chemical film or analog storage.

  4. I can say I genuinely teared up seeing both the build quality and the passion this iconoscope’s “father” had for this recreation! Absolutely beautiful, and awe inspiring!

    I mean, this truly was beautiful! He calls the camera “worthless’ in today’s modern world…
    I’d use the word “priceless” instead! It’s a work of art, and a window into history!

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