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Gianni Bettini

Inventor Gianni Bettini was born into an aristocratic family in Novara, Italy in 1860. A child of privilege, he received the education of the gentleman's class, which included languages and the arts. However, he was more manly than scholarly and decided upon a military career, becoming a lieutenant in the Italian cavalry. While on leave in Paris, Sig. Bettini became smitten with American socialite Daisy Abbott. Shortly thereafter, he left the military and joined Daisy in New York, where the couple married.

Settling in Stamford, Connecticut with his wife's family, Sig. Bettini soon discovered he was uncomfortable being a man of leisure. He developed a fascination for mechanical devices and decided to become an inventor. He and his wife relocated to New York City, where Sig. Bettini combined his passions for music and invention, creating a mechanical sheet music page turner. In 1888, he purchased Thomas Edison's supposedly new and improved phonograph. Designed for business, Sig. Bettini found the phonograph inferior for reproducing music and vocals, and so he invented a playback machine dubbed "The Micro-reproducer." He set up shop as the Bettini Microphonography Diaphragms Company, and in 1892 applied for a patent to duplicate cylinder recordings. His musician friends in U.S. and Europe were eager to use the new equipment, and Sig. Bettini happily obliged, making musical recordings of opera singers Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso, and rare audio recordings of Pope Leo XIII, Mark Twain, and President Benjamin Harrison. Sadly, he made the fateful decision to take these recordings to France, where they were destroyed during World War I.

After his U.S. business, renamed Bettini Company, Ltd., folded, Sig. Bettini turned his attentions to motion pictures. In 1912, he began working on developing a device that would be a more wallet-friendly alternative to the expensive celluloid ribbon media. He began by adapting a stand camera glass plate, upon which he recorded rows of pictures – measuring less than a half-inch square – onto its sensitized emulsion. He then constructed a special camera, which was then placed onto a flattened cylinder that would move the plate past the lens until it reached the plate's edge, when it would move downward to allow a sequence of pictures to be taken. While impressive, the apparatus proved to be noisy and cumbersome, thereby having virtually no commercial value.

Although he fell short with his first effort, Sig. Bettini he perfected the moving picture device that not only achieved his goal of being affordable to the amateur photographer, but also produced pictures that were of a finer quality than celluloid. He reversed the traditional moving picture progress by holding the plate rigid while moving the lens. Sixteen successive pictures appeared on each line (at the rate of 12 or more pictures taken per second), with 36 lines on each plate, totaling 576 consecutive images. Sig. Bettini's plate system eliminated the problem of curling that constantly plagued celluloid, and the plate cost was only 4 cents, while the same number of photographs on celluloid cost $1.50. Sig. Bettini would later create three models for glass plates, hand cameras, and screen projection, and had plans for toy camera for children, but shockingly, his revolutionary motion picture camera was a commercial failure.

Sig. Bettini abandoned his inventions and became a Paris wartime correspondent. He returned to the U.S. permanently in 1917 as an Italian military representative. he died in 1938 with his inventions all but forgotten. An eccentric entrepreneur, Gianni Bettini was a visionary who deserves recognition as being one of the first to recognize the commercial potential of recorded music and motion pictures.



Ref:
1913 Camera Craft, Vol. XX (San Francisco: Fayette J. Clute), pp. 158-162, 382.

1994 From Tinfoil to Stereo: The Acoustic Years of the Recording Industry, 1877-1929 (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida), pp. 61-71.

1995 Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press), p. 24.

2013 The School of Arizona Dranes (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books), pp. 103-104.

1912 The Technical World Magazine, Vol. XVIII (Chicago: Technical World Company), pp. 70-74.


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