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Behind the Cutting Edge

The New Time Travel

May 2024
6min read


New technologies don’t always lead inexorably toward the future. Lately they’ve also been opening doors through which we can step straight into the past. One such door has let us experience a part of the childhood of our parents; another has led to the world premiere of a revolutionary 19205 musical milestone; a third—and most remarkable—opens out to a tour across preRevolutionary Russia, exactly as if it were all there today.

Even the relatively recent past holds mysteries we can never penetrate—just look at any book of jokes from more than a half a century ago. And until recently anyone under 60 in America was utterly perplexed by the idea that the children of an apparently simpler time—our parents—had amused themselves by pushing around on kick scooters, those old playthings that were essentially wood and metal skateboards with a vertical pole at the front. They were almost as unfathomable as that earlier fad of rolling a hoop with a stick. Then in an instant scooters were new and all around us again. Technology made it happen.

Specifically, a Taiwanese businessman named Gino Tsai decided he needed a way to get around his big bicycle factory. “My legs are too short, and my walking speed always seems too slow,” he explained. He took the long-forgotten concept and updated it with aircraft-grade aluminum tested to support an 1,100pound load without bending more than a fifth of an inch, polyurethane wheels and silent bearings (which had also helped bring about the disco-era revival of roller skates), and a patented brake worked by stepping on the rear fender. When he rode his scooter around the floor of a Chicago sporting-goods exposition in 1998, he was noticed by a buyer for the Sharper Image. That company took up the scooter, and it took off.

At the peak of the craze, in 2000, Tsai’s Razor scooter was the best-selling toy in America, and not just for children. For a brief time you could commonly see men in business suits scooting to their jobs on Wall Street. A generation from now that image will doubtless be as impenetrable an enigma of the past as scooters themselves were just a couple of years ago.

Another reawakening of a vanished age took place in the concert hall recently. An insurrectionary 192.4 musical work had its true premiere three-quarters of a century later—because technology made it finally possible. The work was Ballet Mécanique , by George Antheil. Antheil, born in Trenton, New Jersey, trained as a concert pianist and composed avant-garde music; he also wrote about romance for Esquire magazine, advised Hedy Lamarr on getting her breasts enlarged and collaborated with her on a torpedo-control invention used in World War II, predicted before the war that Germany would invade Poland and later Russia and would draw the United States into battle, and ended up a Hollywood movie-music composer.

In the 1920s, as an exile in Paris, he composed pieces with titles like Airplane Sonata and Death of Machines. Ballet Mécanique , in its earliest and most ambi tious version, in 1924, was scored for, among other instruments, 16 player pianos playing four separate parts, 4 bass drums, 7 fire bells, a police siren, and 3 airplane propellers. It proved impossible to perform, for there was no practical way to synchronize the player pianos with anything like the precision needed. It became famous —or infamous, anyway—though, when Antheil wrote a shortened and simplified version with just one player piano; it had its premiere at Carnegie Hall in 1927, and it was such a fiasco that it wasn’t performed again for more than 60 years.


Enter a composer named Paul Lehrman, in the 1990s. He took all 1,240 bars of the original score and painstakingly translated them into a MIDI file. MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is the standard computer language for controlling musical instruments. Ballet Mécanique changes its time signature more than 600 times, and the job of converting it was huge. But once that was done, any part of it could be played by any MIDIequipped instrument, such as a Yamaha Disklavier CD-driven piano. Lehrman then prepared a click track, a recording indicating the beat, to help a conductor wearing headphones negotiate the constant time changes.

The results came together first in Massachusetts in 1999 and then at a Carnegie Hall premiere in April 2000, where eight MIDI-coordinated Disklaviers played all the player-piano parts, a woman in the middle cranked a siren, four xylophonists clattered away, and the three propellers roared through speakers from a recording made in California. The result was a big, repetitive clangor, sometimes loud, sometimes louder, sort of like a Philip Glass piece for industrial noisemakers. The New York Times called it “a riot of intertwined rhythms and noise.” For the first time the world heard what even in a watered-down version three-quarters of a century before had been considered “the acme of demented modernism,” in Virgil Thomson’s words, and had “outsacked the Sacre [ Rite of Spring ],” in Aaron Copland’s. Here was a living moment of the past that the past itself hadn’t experienced.

The most surprising and stirring recent high-tech step into lost time is the trip across pre-Revolutionary Russia made possible by a computer’s transformation of a collection of photographs made there around 1910, turning them from prehistoric-color curiosities into stunningly crisp and detailed portrayals of all aspects of Russian life almost a century ago in a palette as full and lifelike as any digital photograph taken today. A brassbuttoned, green-belted canal manager born in the 1820s oversees his ferry dock; three young peasant girls in multicolored homespun offer berries to visitors outside their log house; the stout emir of Bukhara sits for the camera in his richest royal blue; a merchant in a wooden stall in Samarkand displays ceiling-high stacks of multicolored silks, woolens, and cotton fabrics—all in the brilliant hues of real life.

That the pictures were taken in color at all is itself a technological miracle. That they have been recovered by the latest techniques and made so accurate they look brand-new is another. They were shot by Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, an artist and trained chemist born in 1863 who persuaded Czar Nicholas II to set him up with a private railroad car to travel across Russia, making a photographic survey of the land, its peoples, and its landmarks. He crisscrossed the country between 1909 and 1912 and again in 1915. His goal was to produce a visual record of the greatness of the empire, to be used to educate schoolchildren.

He had devised and patented his own method for making color photographs. He would take three identical photos in rapid succession on the three square thirds of a glass slide about three inches wide and nine inches long. He’d expose the first square through a red filter, the second through a green filter, and the third through a blue one. He’d then develop the film in a darkroom in his railroad car and from the resulting negatives create positive glass slides, which he would project together through red, green, and blue filters to yield a single projected image in full color, albeit usually with blurred edges and other registration problems.

Little did he know that he was catching an ancient world on the eve of its dissolution, a kaleidoscope of cultures across thousands of miles about to be forced into a single Soviet mold. He captured medieval churches and monasteries, locomotives, nomads, dam builders, cities and towns—more than 2,000 images in all. In 1918 he fled the Russian Revolution with 22 crates full of his slides and settled in Paris, where he lived until he died in 1944, at the age of 81, a month after the city’s liberation from the Nazis.

The Library of Congress bought 1,903 of the pictures in 1948 and tried without much success to restore some of their faded colors in the 1980s. In the 1990s a member of the library’s technical staff, Lynn Brooks, pushed for a new attempt to reveal the pictures’ original qualities using computer techniques, and the library hired a commercial photographer named Walter Frankhauser to do the work. He employed what he calls “digichromatography” to get it done.

First he scanned the three negative images for each picture with a digital camera, recording a million pixels per square inch. A push of a computer key turned the resulting negatives into positives, and he then magnified the images on the computer screen and studied them for imperfections and deterioration that could be repaired with imagehandling software. Next came the hardest part: aligning the three images that combined to make each color photograph. Prokudin-Gorskii had had to work fast, especially when he was photographing people, resetting his glass plate and changing filters to get the three exposures for each shot, and the camera was likely to jostle, making the images not align properly. To superimpose them precisely, Frankhauser used software that was unimaginable a couple of decades ago and is utterly commonplace today: Photoshop. He often worked on a picture for days to get it right. Once the alignment was perfect, he pressed a few computer keys and turned the three blackand-white positives into the red, green, and blue they represented. Finally, seeing the picture in full color, he did a last retouching to repair any further imperfections he now detected.

The results surprised everyone involved. As Verna Curtis, the library’s curator of photography, put it, “The computer allowed us to do something that ProkudinGorskii never could have imagined he could do but wanted to do. It’s a complete world out there, a world that we usually think of in black and white.” And you can step into that world yourself, at . Thus do high technology and its relentless pace of change send us hurtling ever onward—into the past.

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