When you’re little, it’s hard to imagine the invisible world. Things like wind, sound and heat from the sun are nearly magical concepts for small children. Similarly, think about a TV remote and how it emits an invisible signal to turn the TV on from a distance. This invisible world exists all around us, and the use of invisible light has become seamlessly integrated into our day-to-day lives. Since William Herschel’s discovery of invisible light, scientists have been attempting to harness its power for new technologies. From thermal imaging to security system detectors, infrared light has been utilized in ways that were once impossible.
Auburn fostered great developments on this topic through Theodore W. Case and his laboratory. At the Case Research Laboratory, located behind the Cayuga Museum of History & Art, Case and his employees began working on photoelectric research in 1916. Case and his associates were particularly interested in how minerals interact with sunlight to create energy. This work led to the invention of a cell, also known as a lightbulb, called the thalofide cell. What’s unique about this discovery? Essentially, they created a lightbulb that was sensitive to the infrared spectrum of light, which is invisible to the human eye. At the time there were very few inventions of a similar nature, and much of the work regarding invisible light was still theoretical. The lab went on to utilize the thalofide cell in work on several inventions, and it also became their first commercial product.
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In 1917, when the U.S. entered into World War I, many scientists put aside their daily operations to focus on producing equipment for the military. Case and his cohort began working with the U.S. Navy on a signaling system that could not be intercepted by enemy U-boats. What they came up with was an infrared system that could send and receive signals that were unable to be intercepted visually. This system was tested in Auburn by placing the sending unit on top of the mansion at 203 Genesee St. and the receiving unit on a neighboring mansion. The sending unit group would send a message that was then transmitted through a Morse code receiver, and the receiving unit group would translate it. They also did field tests for the Navy from ship to shore and ship to ship at much greater distances, up to a few miles. Weather conditions were the biggest problem for the system as it did not work well, or at all, in fog or heavy rain due to the path of light being obstructed.
World War I ended in 1918, which slowed the work on the signaling system, and by 1920 all work on the project came to a halt. Due to the secret nature of working on military technology Case was not able to patent the system during the war, perhaps losing himself a place in history as a pioneer in the world of infrared inventions. Interestingly, we know Case employed a large number of women during this time because he had his employees sign secrecy agreements about their work with the Navy. Despite the secrecy, Case received a letter of appreciation from Franklin D. Roosevelt, which acknowledged the importance of the lab’s work and thanked them for their wartime contribution. In the early 1920s Case and his lab continued developing the thalofide cell and it became the catalyst needed to create successful sound-on-film technology. The illusive world of invisible light and many of its applications were revealed in Auburn over 100 years ago.
Haley Boothe is the curator of the Case Research Lab located at the Cayuga Museum of History & Art, 203 Genesee St., Auburn. This project is funded by the American Historical Association with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. For more information, contact the museum at (315) 253-8051 or cayugamuseum.org.