In a setting of late Victorian technology, would it be possible to record and replay sound and light near-real-time similar to modern video-recordings?

The ideal criteria for the system would be (in order):

  1. The ability to record sound inside a room (not having to be right in front of a microphone).
  2. The ability to feed the signals to a central room for observation.
  3. The ability to record shade (any 'resolution').
  4. The ability to record colour (any 'resolution').

I ask because I'd like my correctional facilities to be remotely supervised, but I can't figure out a CCTV-like system using the technology available.

Cost or effort is not of any concern, but the simpler and more practical the better.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ You posted it as a reality check, so you are prepared to get "no" for an answer, right? Also, do you need to record, or transmit in real time? or both? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Dec 18, 2018 at 12:43
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    $\begingroup$ T. A. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Queen Victoria reigned from 1819 to 1901. I'd say that the phonograph is obviously Victorian technology. P.S. What does "record and replay near-realtime similar to modern video recordings" supposed to mean? The entire point of recording something is to play it back later. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 18, 2018 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Renan not really, see my answer. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Dec 18, 2018 at 12:56
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Please don't modify the question to invalidate existing answers. You have asked about recording and playback, and have received answers indicating that those functionalities were actually available in the Victorian era. Now you are asking for television. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 18, 2018 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ This is not an answer to your question but check out: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon and Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault goodreads.com/book/show/80369.Discipline_and_Punish $\endgroup$
    – Cyn
    Dec 18, 2018 at 15:26

9 Answers 9


Victorian Era is 1837–1901. Early period of film starts in 1890s. So is it possible to record and replay? Of course, because it was done.

For transmission, it is more complicated. First prototypes was mechanical:

As a 23-year-old German university student, Paul Julius Gottlieb Nipkow proposed and patented the Nipkow disk in 1884

As you can see, still very well in Victorian Era! Sadly, it wasn't practical then:

By the 1920s when amplification made television practical, Scottish inventor John Logie Baird employed the Nipkow disk in his prototype video systems.

So you need to stretch it a bit, and made electrical amplifiers available some 20~30 years earlier, or make your system use higher voltages - steampunk vibes for the win!

"The ability to record colour (any 'resolution')." Was not in the question when I was writing my answer. Still, with three disks and some color filters it shouldn't be that impossible.

Bonus: Audio

Again, looking at Wikipedia suggest that there were attempts during Victorian Era to make something like telephone.

Innocenzo Manzetti

Innocenzo Manzetti considered the idea of a telephone as early as 1844, and may have made one in 1864, as an enhancement to an automaton built by him in 1849.

Johann Philipp Reis

The Reis telephone was developed from 1857 on.

Given that telephone prototypes actually were built, we can be reasonably sure sound transmission is possible. Yet again, amplifiers would help.

  • $\begingroup$ why do you mention early prototype telephones instead of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone that was first publicly demonstrated in 1876 at the Centennial Exhibition? Telephones were in widespread use long before the end of the Victorian era in 1901. The question currently says "late Victorian technology". $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2018 at 14:37
  • 8
    $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding because 1844 and 1857 was earlier than 1876. Plus, telephone by Reis had better sound quality, only poorer marketing than Bell. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Dec 18, 2018 at 14:42
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    $\begingroup$ Probably not directly helpful to OP, but early prototypes of the fax machine started in the 1840s, and by 1880 there was a version that could scan an image without manual plotting/drawing. Depending on how accurate you want to keep things, you could possibly whip up some remote freeze-frame system... $\endgroup$
    – TripeHound
    Dec 18, 2018 at 15:17
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    $\begingroup$ @TripeHound - imagines reading Faxes with captioned black and white images - for optimal atmosphere, have a honkytonk playing in the background $\endgroup$
    – Baldrickk
    Dec 18, 2018 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ I don't have a good feeling about "stretching a bit" in order to havdwave 20-30 years of progress. It's not just electrical amplifiers, it's photoelectric detection and huge leaps in electrical and electronic engineering that make difference between XIX and XX centuries. To me, it's like asking "can we have a smartphone in 1980s?" $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Dec 18, 2018 at 19:29

Theoretically you could transmit (nor record) sound and images without the phonograph or a cinematograph. Depending on the precise time you have chosen your story to take place, they could be either unavailable or too expensive to use in correctional facilities.

The main issues would be precision and amplification, though.

Sound can be transmitted more or less efficiently (but distorted with distance) through a linear medium surrounded by suitable materials. Sound travels farther through cables and hallways/tubes.

Image can be focused first and amplified later through lenses. A bigger picture would mean lower brightness.

As I said, an important issue would be precision and amplification: the further you want sound and image to travel, the better materials and more perfect mirrors/lenses you would need.

A possibility to overcome this issue is a small, tightly packed correctional facility.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ I was going to write an answer in a very similar vein to this, but you beat me to it. I would add that it may be worth looking into speaking tubes that were used in some ships and large homes in this time period. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speaking_tube $\endgroup$
    – K Mo
    Dec 18, 2018 at 13:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Rafael One way to arranged a small, tightly packed correctional facility without having overcrowding considered inhumane by modern or Victorian standards would be to have a very tall multistory correctional facility. Each floor might have only a small number of prisoners, but if there are enough floors the prison could hold as many prisoners as a normal prison. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2018 at 15:59
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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer because it will "feel" more Victorian to the reader. While it is true that some advancements in video and audio tech did exist near the end of the Victorian Era, we mostly associate those with later eras, and thus may appear anachronistic (or at least jarring) to the reader. $\endgroup$
    – trlkly
    Dec 19, 2018 at 9:45

Avoid modern bias - just because we use electronic items now doesn't mean the Victorians would have.

Instead, consider the established science of optics - where light does the work, not vulgar electricity. A periscope was first deployed in 1854, and the first prismatic lens periscopes were used in the American Civil War in 1861-5.

Periscopes were used in trench warfare, submarines, tanks, naval vessels, and more recently spacecraft - the Soviet Soyuz reentry module has a periscope for observing downward, establishing a reentry angle, and docking.

More info https://space.stackexchange.com/questions/24603/soyuz-has-a-space-periscope

Downsides - you need a lot of light for an analogue optical tool to work. Early TV cameras needed lots of hot stage lights to illuminate the actors.

Another way to picture this might be a much larger/longer version of a through-door viewer that some homes have installed through their front door.

General reading https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Periscope

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @HotelCalifornia precision-ground lenses, and the finest quality mirrors! A submarine periscope could be many metres long. The Victorians would build a building to suit the technical needs, so the correctional facility OP suggests, something like a Panopticon (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Panopticon) but with "light pipes" to minimise bends. Employing manual watchers would not be strange to Victorian era people, that would act as a substitute for recording as we know it. Long distance transmission will need some serious handwaving though. $\endgroup$
    – Criggie
    Dec 18, 2018 at 19:56
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    $\begingroup$ It was not my intention to imply the use of electronics, not least because there was little knowledge of electronics at the time. The usage of CCTV is used as a comparison to a modern-day system. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2018 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ Fair enough. That said, the introduction of a panopticon might reduce the need for a cctv-like system in the first place, due to its interesting psychological effect :) $\endgroup$ Dec 19, 2018 at 3:57
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    $\begingroup$ I like this answer because it takes Victorian mindset into account. The confines that made periscopes dim and short would not apply to purpose-built prisons: You could build tunnels and hallways just for the light, have huge mirrors, long telescopes etc; To give electricity a shout-out, maybe the cells would be periodically illuminated by a 'spark' to make the image brighter, and allow observation by night (it would not be covert, but a prison setting might not need that). $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Feb 27, 2019 at 11:03
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    $\begingroup$ For the sound, how about long, fast conveyor belts carrying wax that pass a membrane-and-needle contraption at the cells, and then converge on the guard's room where the guards can choose to lower a grammophone-needle onto the belt of their choosing? $\endgroup$
    – bukwyrm
    Feb 27, 2019 at 11:05

[The querent has modified the question so that instead of asking for record and playback they are now asking for television. This answer refers to the original question.]

Recording and playing back sounds and moving images:

Queen Victoria reigned from 1837 to 1901. Quite obviously, recording and playing back audio and video were possible during her reign, in actual for-real history.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Even today CCTV usually does not include sound, so that's not necessity. $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Dec 18, 2018 at 12:54
  • $\begingroup$ @Mołot I would be glad for it though. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2018 at 13:08
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Queen Victoria LIVED from 1819 to 19001 but only REIGNED from 1837-1901. $\endgroup$ Dec 18, 2018 at 15:55
  • $\begingroup$ @M.A.Golding: Corrected, thanks for spotting. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 18, 2018 at 16:21
  • $\begingroup$ Video recording and playback was nowhere near close to real-time. Anything film-based requires developing the film before you can view it, while the fax machines of the time had a very low transmission rate (and the lack of amplification probably means you can only transmit images lit by direct sunlight). $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Dec 18, 2018 at 21:20

For arrival of signal within an hour, film is entirely plausible and, as other answers have mentioned, well within the Victorian period. Color photography was demonstrated in the 1880s (shortly after gelatin dry plate photography was invented), with panchromatic film suitable for filter-wheel color still predating 1900. Development after the introduction of organic developers (Rodinal was introduced in 1888) took around thirty minutes (develop, fix, wash) plus drying time, and a purpose-built apparatus might allow viewing the film while wet (wet printing was routinely done in the press camera era, some decades later, to get photos into newspapers in under an hour); otherwise hot forced air could dry a short film strip in a few minutes.

Use of a telephone modified for greater pickup sensivity (with a horn, for instance) to drive the recording stylus on an Edison phonograph would permit the recording apparatus to be remote from the room/cell. This gives a sound recording, deliverable within the hour. This leaves synchronization, which was also managed by Edison, though after Queen Victoria's passing.

If the transmission needs to be remote, you have a problem. Sound could travel over a distance of (at least) a few miles on a Bell/White/Edison telephone, but there was no method of transmitting vision at a resolution you'd call "image" at a rate faster than a significant fraction of an hour per page for early facsimile telegraphs, never mind in color.

  • $\begingroup$ Given the film technology of the time, I'd be very cautious about letting anything hot get near it. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Dec 18, 2018 at 21:22
  • $\begingroup$ Reasonably fresh, well-made nitrate base film will soften at a bit above boiling water temperature, and won't ignite until a good bit hotter than that. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Dec 19, 2018 at 12:13

Carbon microphones were invented in 1878. They have granules carbon between two plates. The sound causes the thickness to changes, and causes it act as a variable resistor. A battery is needed for it to work. They will drive a coil speaker. In fact a speaker coupled to a graphite microphone can be used as a low frequency amplifier.

You'll also need a moving-iron speaker (around 1870), and Daniel cells for the battery (1836)


Mołot's answer is basically that recording was available and transmission is the challenge. Building on that:

Depending on the needs of "near real time" you could have a conveyor belt or similar mechanically rotating physical storage media in and out. You can have multiple recording systems taking turns to account for the change-out time.

While one system changes out, the other records, then (possibly as soon as) the change-out is done on one machine and it can start recording, it does so and the change-out begins on the other. The changed-out media is mechanically conveyed to an observing station, which can accept two storage inputs that follow a similar automatic change-out process.

When played back, the observer sees what happened delayed by the time involved in mechanically conveying the recording media back to the observation station.

This would take some ingenuity and sufficient motivation, but is reasonable for the tech of the time.



Roman Times: Glass is drawn into fibers

1713: Rene de Reaumur makes spun glass fibers

1790s: Claude Chappe invents 'optical telegraph' in France

1841: Daniel Colladon demonstrates light guiding in jet of water Geneva

1842: Jacques Babinet reports light guiding in water jets and bent glass rods Paris

1853: Paris Opera uses Colladon's water jet in the opera Faust

1854: John Tyndall demonstrates light guiding in water jets, duplicating but not acknowledging Colladon

1873: Jules de Brunfaut makes glass fibers that can be woven into cloth

1880: Alexander Graham Bell invents Photophone, Washington

1880: William Wheeler invents system of light pipes to illuminate homes from an electric arc lamp in basement, Concord, Mass.

1884: International Health Exhibition in South Kensington district of London has first fountains with illuminated water jets, designed by Sir Francis Bolton

1887: Charles Vernon Boys draws quartz fibers for mechanical measurements

1887: Royal Jubilee Exhibition in Manchester has illuminated "Fairy Fountains" designed by W. and J. Galloway and Sons

1888: Illuminated fountains at Glasgow and Barcelona fairs

1888: Dr. Roth and Prof. Reuss of Vienna use bent glass rods to illuminate body cavities

1889: Universal Exhibition in Paris shows refined illuminated fountains designed by G. Bechmann

1895: Henry C. Saint-Rene designs a system of bent glass rods for guiding light in an early television scheme (Crezancy, France)

1892: Herman Hammesfahr shows glass dress at Chicago World's Fair

April 25, 1898: David D. Smith of Indianapolis applies for patent on bent glass rod as a surgical lamp

1920s: Bent glass rods used for microscope illumination

June 2, 1926: C. Francis Jenkins applies for U.S. patent on a mechanical television receiver in which light passes along quartz rods in a rotating drum to form an image.

1930 - German medical student Heinrich Lamm was the first person to assemble a bundle of optical fibers to carry an image. Lamm's goal was to look inside inaccessible parts of the body. During his experiments, he reported transmitting the image of a light bulb. The image was of poor quality, however. His effort to file a patent was denied because of Hansell's British patent.

This last 2 is the closest you can come in anything like the Victorian age.


Perhaps a Panopticon will serve your needs. It's essentially a ring or cylindrical of cells, with mostly transparent walls facing the center, and a watchtower in the center.

It isn't much like CCTV, but it did allow a few guards / watchmen to observer a great number of prisoners.


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