AP mast (2K)


by Arthur Dungate


Emil Mechau

A brilliant, virtually unknown inventor in the
field of motion-picture projectors and television

a short biography by HELMUT KRUEGER


WHO REALLY WAS EMIL MECHAU? Most people have seen silent movies of by-gone days marred by picture flicker, and many of the elder generation still remember the first television broadcast of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. However, who would ever think of linking either event with a humble German inventor named Emil Mechau? Who really was Emil Mechau?



Emil Mechau was born in 1882 in Seesen near the Harz Mountains in Germany. His father was manager in a sugar refinery and had to move with his family to Brottewitz in Saxony when the plant in Seesen was shut down. Upon the successful completion of his precision mechanic apprenticeship with Maibuhr/Reiss in Bad Liebenwerda, Emil Mechau joined the Astro Experimental Department at Carl Zeiss in Jena. While Mechau worked on special optical projects in his laboratory at Zeiss, Professor Dr. Siedentopf increasingly involved Mechau with scientific demonstrations.

Emil Mechau in 1933 (7K) 


Pursuant to a discussion between Dr. Siedentopf and Oskar Messter, the father of German cinematography, about how the visible cut-off during the jerky cinematograghic projection can be eliminated to perhaps replace the then-used cutting blade by means of an oscillating mirror to avoid the very annoying picture flicker.

As young scientific assistant, Mechau was a witness to the conversation, whereupon he made up his mind to study the subject in depth and to also implement the continuous motion of the film through compensation by optical means. The brightest engineers and the best opticians had been dealing unsuccessfully with this problem for many years; would it be possible for this novice in the field of cinematography to find a practical solution to this problem?

Because Zeiss did not afford Mechau the opportunity to proceed with his project, he defected to Ernst Leitz GmbH in Wetzlar, Hesse. In 1910 as Scientific Assistant he built and personally tested and continued to improve his new motion-picture projector for continuous film movement in the local Kaiser movie theater. There, for the first time, the public could watch silent movies without any marred picture flicker and totter and in never before enjoyed brilliance. The projector also totally eliminated the disruptive ripping and the therewith-associated fire hazard.

During this time, Mechau also made several initiatory inventions, including those, which were not related to the cinematograghic field. Shortly after Mechau's move to Wetzlar, the Leitz Company needed a shop foreman in the microscope research department. Mechau informed his friend Oskar Barnack about it; they had stayed in contact with one another since their days together at Zeiss. Through Mechau's negotiations between Ernst Leitz II and Barnack, Barnack was subsequently hired for the position. Later, Oskar Barnack built the world-famous 35mm Leica (Leitz Camera).

The Mechau Projector found rapid worldwide acclaim, which prompted Ernst Leitz to have Mechau establish an independent motion-picture projector plant in Rastatt, a town near the Black Forest. 1923 was the year of the construction of the most modern movie theater of its time, the Schauburg Movie Palace in Münster in Westphalia, at which premier the Model 3 Mechau Projector was the technical attraction. According to the Westdeutsche Filmzeitung, a German movie publication, rarely before have so many of the highest-ranking dignitaries of federal, state, and city governments and the higher-education establishment attended a private event with such unity. Henny Porten, the star of the event's feature film, The Geyer-Wally, was also present among the many representatives of the film industry.

Emil Mechau, the inventor of the motion-picture projector, was also invited and his projector was praised as a masterpiece of the German optics and precision mechanics industry.

In a special ceremony of the Deutsche Kinotechnische Gesellschaft (DKG) in Berlin in 1931, Mechau was awarded the prestigious Oskar Messter Medal in recognition of his many years of tireless undertakings as an inventor in the field of motion-picture technology. It represented the crowning event of Mechau's achievements to that date. Despite stiff competition by the best engineers and optics scientists of his time, it was only he who, with his Mechau Projector, succeeded in realizing the continuous motion of the film with optical compensation.

The advance of the new sound film with the high financial investments it began to require, caused Ernst Leitz to sell the cinematography projector plant in Rastatt, including all of its patents, to AEG in Berlin. In addition to his advancements of high-precision motion-picture projectors as well as new light-beam pick-up devices, Mechau developed his first 180-line spinning disk scanner for the newly evolving television for the 1934 Berlin Radio Exhibition.

In early-1935, Mechau changed over to the AEG subsidiary Telefunken to continue his work in this new field. That same year, he succeeded in developing his flying-spot scanner, for which he received the Grand Prix in the Innovations and Developments category at the 1937 World Fair in Paris. With this flying-spot scanner, the first television telephone service was made possible, which enabled one to not only hear but also to see one's interlocutor in a distant television speaking station. Only now, more then 50 years later, the idea of video-conferencing once again resurfaces. Somehow, amid it all, Mechau also developed the Olympia television camera with interchangeable lenses. With the soon-to-become famous 2.2-meter-long Olympia Cannon with it's 5/1600mm Leitz lens that had a front lens diameter of 450mm, live television transmissions of sport events from a great distance within the stadium could be transmitted to the outside world for the first time. Although completed, his next 375-line flying-spot scanner and his new television camera for the 1940 Olympic games in Helsinki could no longer be deployed as a result of the outbreak of World War II.



Just a few weeks after the end of the war, Emil Mechau, at the age of 63, was accidentally killed when he was asked by a Russian soldier to defuse a hand grenade. This tragic mishap ended the life of this modest man and brilliant inventor. The author wishes to express his appreciation of the late Emil Mechau's lifetime of achievements and to contribute to the keeping of his memory as an outstanding personality.

Copyright © 1993-2002, Helmut Krueger. All rights reserved.