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Carey, George Roswell
Significant Manuscript Archive Comprising Correspondence, Drawings, and other materials pertaining to Carey's Selenium Camera - First Proposal for a Complete Television System, and other Inventions 1878-1903

Archive consisting of some 77 letters, 101 pages, (some retained copies of outgoing correspondence), 23 postcards, 24 scientific manuscripts, 121 pages, most profusely illustrated, 61 drawings and sketches of inventions, some on oversized sheets, 92 pages of Carey's manuscript account of his selenium camera entitled: "Seeing and Transmitting Pictures by Electricity", 1 pocket diary, 51 pages, heavily illustrated, 6 manuscript affidavits, 13 pages, plus printed ephemeral items, and manuscript documents. Materials dated from 1878-1903

An extensive archive of manuscript material: correspondence, drawings, plans, affidavits, and photographs, documenting the scientific work and inventions of George R. Carey, an inventor in Boston, Massachusetts, dating from the 1870's through the 1890's. The archive is of considerable historical significance for its documentation of Carey's pioneering work in the development of television and Carey's photoelectric device which he invented in 1877, as well as other contributions in telephony and electricity, including his "Thermophone" of 1881, which seems to anticipate the cell phone. The archive documents and details his proposal to use the "telectrosocope" using the photo-electric properties of selenium as a means for transmitting images and for his multicircuit mosaic experiments the first proposal for a complete television system dating as early as 1877-1880. Carey's "selenium camera," in all its forms is recognized by historians as an ancestor of both facsimile machines and television.

After nearly 135 years it is surprising that much of the early history of television is still a matter of conjecture. Thorough documentation is available in allied branches of telecommunications - telegraphy, telephony, radio and related subjects electricity, electronics and motion pictures - whereas historical accounts of the early growth of television have not done justice to the past. The present archive adds much needed information to the historical record on the pioneering efforts of one American inventor in the field.

George R. Carey was born in 1851, in Malden, Massachusetts, he worked as a surveyor, employed by the City of Boston, however he clearly spent most of his time inventing and in trying to obtain patents and recognition for his work. He frequently worked in collaboration with his father, Augustus Carey, also an inventor, at their Castle Street laboratory. It is apparent, from material in the archive that Carey was of limited means and had to borrow money for his patents; in some cases the patents were rejected because he was unable to afford the production of a model to accompany the application. He also apparently suffered from poor legal representation.

How the fusion of ideas leads to a new branch of technology has been well illustrated in many branches of science, it is likewise illustrated in the early proposals for seeing by electricity. In 1873, Willoughby Smith, chief electrician for the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company discovered that the amount of electrical current that selenium conducted depended on the amount of light that struck it, in other words a visual pickup device the counterpart of the microphone. George R. Carey learned of this discovery and began to experiment with selenium. The disclosure of a working telephone by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876 certainly provided an important initial impetus for Carey and other inventors, but other factors, particularly telegraphic practices and devices and scientific discoveries in the field of optics entered into the early schemes.  The archive shows that by 1877 Carey had devised a crude system for transmitting images - an early attempt at television.

Carey has been credited with devising this system as early as 1875 - though not by himself - this claim first appeared in an article by Archibald Campbell Swinton (1863-1930), well known electrical engineer of London who was the first to suggest an all electric television system. He stated: "The history of what is now known as television goes back for many years and begins so far as is known, with a suggestion of G. R. Carey, an American, as long ago as the year 1875."   Swinton then described correctly one part of Carey's proposed system, which consisted of mosaics of selenium and electric filaments connected by a cable. It is interesting to note that that this approach is the predecessor of modern television wherein photoelectric and electroluminescent mosaics are scanned by electron beams that also serve as distributors for sequential transmission of visual signals.

Swinton may have relied upon his memory or a previous statement about the early days and did not check the date. In 1924, he had referred to Carey's instrument as being the first he knew of, described in 1880. A likely explanation for this change of date appears in a letter by Swinton published in June 1929. He refers to "the method of television proposed by G. R. Carey, an American, and dated 1875 according to La Television Electrique, by A. Dauvillier, and published much later, in 1928, by La Revue Generale de L'Electricite..."  Since this article appeared in January that year, it seems evident that Swinton preferred the earlier date from this source, especially in view of his esteem of "Dauvillier's very comprehensive survey of television inventions."

Carey states in his own account of his invention (drafts of which are contained in the archive) that he first became interested in the photo-electric properties of the element selenium in 1873 and that the idea that for transmitting images utilizing these properties did not occur until 1876 and the actual device was invented and constructed in 1877.

A preview of Carey's plans appeared in a short editorial notice in the May 17, 1878 issue of Scientific American, "We have recently on one or two occasions alluded to the telectroscope invented by M. Senlecq of Ardres. We now have before us several devices (which) are the invention of Mr. George R. Carey, of Boston, Mass. Perhaps the most curious of these instruments is the selenium camera obscura, which is capable of transmitting telegraphically an image of any object and making a permanent impression at a distant point." A more detailed article appeared in Scientific American in the June 5, 1880 issue, this "permanent impression" was to be obtained by the usual electrochemical process.

In Carey's Patent application for his "new mode of telegraphing," No. 6942, filed on April 7, 1880, he states that he invented his first Selenium Camera in January of 1877. The application outlines the progress of his work up to that time, various improvements as well as specifications for the apparatus, and contains signed affidavits from various witnesses who saw his designs.

Carey actually proposed three different schemes - one multicircuit with an alternative receiver, and one single circuit. First, selenium and wire point mosaics connected with a cable for electrochemical recording. Second, the same, but with a visual receiver comprising an array of platinum or carbon points (filaments) enclosed in an evacuated glass faceplate or cap, which would give "a luminous image instead of printing the same." Third, instruments for recording only, with a single selenium cell and a wire point arranged to trace helical paths by clockwork mechanisms, the interconnections being a single line and ground return. Carey's second scheme with the equivalent of a bank of incandescent lamps is the one commonly described.

Carey's proposals were important for several reasons, first that he conceived of a visual transmitter as a "camera." Carey's use of an evacuated faceplate certainly anticipated the cathode ray tube. Being a multi-wire scheme, there was no provision made for synchronization.

In matters of invention, claims are usually validated by the date of a published account, a notebook entry, or patent application. From the historical viewpoint, the discovery at a later time of memoranda, letters or other hitherto unpublished material may clarify the sequence of events or establish pertinent dates. In general therefore the date of a publication that reveals some particulars of the method conceived or proposed - not simply a claim of the year of conception - is the only means for determining priorities.

The earliest date that can be assigned to any conception of a system for transmitting visual images is 1877. Three men claim that year: Senlecq, Carey, Sawyer, and, by inference de Paiva. This archive is of great importance in the study of the very earliest years of television, and in delineating in greater detail the beginnings of the medium.

       Sample Quotations from correspondence:

New York, June 7, 1878, Augustus C. Carey to his son George, Boston

"Dear George,

... Please go to the place where you bought the selenium and ask the man where he got it as a friend of yours in New York wishes to know. I have traded with Wheeler & Wilson to put the cutter on to all their needles and shall fix that and the plaiting machine up next week. Mr. Wheeler is in NY only on Tuesday and Wednesday and I shall wait. Cannot tell just when I shall return as I am making trades with Singer - Howe and other companies on the cutter. It promises to be a big thing. When I find the man that sells Selenium I will see if I can get any wire made of that metal and will report to you....'

Boston, March 13, 1879, George R. Carey to Messrs Munn & Co., (Publishers of Scientific American)


I have sent by mail for your examination six copies (with description of each) of my Selenium Inventions, the operations of all of which depend upon the changes in electrical conductivity produced by the action of light on the metal Selenium.

Drawing (No1) is my Selenium Electrical Camera

Drawing (No. 2) is my Selenium Electrical Camera

Drawing (No 3) is my Selenium Relay Instrument

Drawing (No 4) is my Selenium Transit Inst

Drawing (No 5) is my Selenium Fire Alarm

Drawing (No6) is my Selenium Rheostat.

If I furnish Electrotypes with description what will be the cost of publication? If I publish these drawings and descriptions it will be to protect myself... Would like you to file this letter returning drawings and descriptions to me. Please keep this matter secret and notify me if received. Find $ 1.00 (one dollar) enclose for your trouble..."

Boston, March 15, 1879, George R. Carey to Messrs Munn & Co.


Your kind letter of the 14th is received. I thank you very much for your offer and will send the electros as soon as my means will allow...

I have sent Munn & Co a copy of this letter - this letter is in regard to my Selenium Inventions a description & drawing of which they have seen. G. R. Carey -..."

Boston, March 3, 1880, George R. Carey to Munn & Co.


I have sent you to day by mail the drawings and descriptions of my two selenium cameras in which I use the metalloid selenium for telegraphic purposes. Please make a preliminary examination at the U. S. Patent Office Washington D. C. of each device immediately and return these drawings and descriptions with your advice and the result of your labor to me. I have sent to day a Post Office order for ten dollars ($ 10.00) to your address to pay you for both examinations..."

Wednesday, September 22, 1880, A. C. Carey to his son George R. Carey


Few things would please me better than to see you get a "bottom patent." But how can you do that? Referring to the Sci American of June 12th 1880, in the first part of the article he Sawyer says he described &c &c in the early fall of 1877. His witnesses will prove that you was not the first one to use selenium. The using a large number of wires close together is undoubtedly yours, and the examiner has allowed it, but suppose only one wire is really needed, suppose any image, likeness or thing can be sent by a single wire at a single flash, then what is the use of a "large number of wires" ? Then again light and shadows, (according to the experience of all experimenters heard from) acts very slow on selenium. Suppose it can be made to act instantly? Does your apparatus do that? If so, you are ahead on that point. I do not care to describe just how I operate, but the points gained, are, 1st Lights and shadows on a properly prepared piece of selenium can be shown on a screen at a distance and changed as quick as a letter can be sounded on a telegraph instrument. 

2nd Telegraph wires now in use are all that will be needed. I think I will let obtaining a patent rest until you have found out what you can get. I am ready to testify for you to everything I know at any time you may desire without regard to any effect it may have  on any invention of my own or in which I may be interested. So go on as fast as you can. The testimony could all be taken in one day..." 

September 23, 1880, Boston, George Carey to his father, A. C. Carey


Your letter of the 22nd was received this A. M. - As regards Mr. Sawyer I do not think he stated spoke of using selenium for the purpose invented by me and you can see for yourself that if he had he would have applied for a patent at that time. Now I know that there is nothing in the Patent Office in which selenium is used for telegraphic purposes - because the Examiner referred me to the article in S. American of March 8th, 1878 and mentioned nothing else as interfering with my invention, also Munn & Co made a preliminary examination in the Patent Office, and they found nothing similar to my device. I again say that if Sawyer or any one else had invented anything in which selenium was used for telegraphic purposes they would have patented it immediately, don't you think so?

I thank you very much for offering to let your matter rest until I get a patent, and if I do get it perhaps it may be of service to you. I ought to get it I have evidence enough and if the patent is not allowed me I think the decision will be very unjust. I give below the dates on which you signed my drawings and helped make the two instruments, for the purpose of assisting you in making your affidavit.

If convenient I would like you to give a verbal instead of a written affidavit unless the written affidavit will be just as good in law,..."

October 13, 1880, London, editor of English Mechanic & World of Science, to George R. Carey

"Mr. Carey,

Dr. Sir,

With reference to the short article on Mr. Senlecq's telectroscope we cannot remember whence we obtained it. Probably from La Nature or Comptes Rendues, or from the London Times. But you would no doubt get authentic information by addressing a note to M. le Comte du Moncel, Paris to whom the invention was submitted..."

January 26, 1881, Boston, George R. Carey, to Dr. R. A. Koss

"Dear Sir,

I send you as desired the electros and manuscript of my Selenium Camera and Instruments for transmitting and recording images.  In order to make your article complete and do justice to others I send you among other inventions the drawings and descriptions of a light telephone invented by me on March 20th, 1879, one year and eight months before Prof. Bell made public his "Photophone."  I have other inventions in which I utilize this property possessed by Selenium besides the ones herein mentioned. Please return all the manuscripts and electros to me after publication ..."

Malden, April 9, 1881

"Magneto Thermophone

The instruments on the following pages are for the purpose of transmitting to a distance, audible speech or any other sound made in front of telephone A, by varying a beam of heat and light or heat without light. Said heat undulation are intended to vary the magnetism of a permanent or electro magnet by striking either pole and there by inducing corresponding magnetic currents in a coil of copper wire placed around either pole, said currents operating a telephone in circuit with said coil. It is well known that heat decreases and cold increases the magnetism of any magnet and these instruments are intended to utilize this property of magnets..."

May 29, 1881, 329 Tremont Street, Boston, A. C. Carey to S. D. Mott and W. A. Stearns

"Gents, after you left me today and calling to mind the fact that tomorrow would be "Decoration" day that my son might not come in to the city... as I wished to get at him before he communicated with the Bell telephone co again. He came in to see me this evening. He states that he invented the instruments illustrated in the Scientific American May 28, 1881 in March 1879 and he has drawings of the same which were made and properly witnessed during that month. He also states that the receivers shown in said illustrations are his priority and acknowledged so to be by the people. He places the matter of these inventions in my hands to see what arrangements if any I can make with you..."

May 29, 1881, A. C. Carey to George R. Carey


Two of Mr. Edison's men have been here with me all the forenoon. They came on from New York last night on purpose to see you. Finding our names in the Directory at 92 Castle St. they hunted me up.

Thinking they would have no trouble in finding you they made positive promise to go back this P.M. but I can repeat all the facts and am glad you was not here to day. I will tell you why when I see you... I want to see you before you see Watson again and I do not know whether you are coming in Monday or not. I want you to come prepared to show me the dates of the inventions illustrated in the S. A. last week. No one will be with me..."

Boston, Jan 12th, 1891

"On Sunday, Jan 11th, 1891 I set up and tried the apparatus shown below, at my Mother's house on Maple Place, Malden, Mass. This apparatus was intended to and did generate electricity by the chemical action of vapor of water or steam, on incandescent coal. The current generated was sufficient to move the needle of a galvanometer (which was in circuit with the generator cell) at least 45 ° of arc. This was repeated a number of times, and when the wires leading from generator to galvanometer were reversed in position at galvanometer the needle moved in the opposite direction to its first movement. That is, the first current moved the North end of the needle of the galvanometer towards the East and when the wires leading from generator cell to galvanometer were reversed at the galvanometer the needle moved at the North end towards the West...."  

The archive contains several drafts of Carey's own reminiscences of his involvement with selenium and in transmitting pictures by electricity. This account was published in The Electrical Engineer, (January 16, 1895). In it he states:

       "In 1873 I first became interested in that property of selenium by which it changes its electrical conductivity when exposed to light varying in intensity. In 1876 the idea occurred to me that this property of selenium might be utilized for transmitting the image of any object to a distance; and in 1877 I invented the following instruments for this purpose..." 

See: Shiers, George, Historical Notes on Television before 1900, SMPTE Journal, March 1977, Vol. 86, No. 3

Shiers, George and Mary, Early Television A Bibliographic Guide to 1940, 115, 133-5, 249, 412, 1197, 1918

Carey, George R., "Transmitting, Recording and Seeing Pictures by Electricity", The Electrical Engineer, January 16, 1895, pp,.57-58