”At exactly what point does a drawing turn into a patent drawing?” This was one of the challenging questions posed by Christoph Rodrigo de la Torre as he presented his paper on the early visual recapitulation of nuclear bomb explosions. These explosions were long believed to resist capture, but they eventually were through a device called the stroboscope, patented in the 1930s. Christoph’s talk also brought to the fore the patent drawing, having emerged as a standard way of visualizing inventions in patent applications after patent models had been abandoned.
The stroboscope was designed to capture microseconds of nuclear explosions, serving as both a documentation of nuclear technology and a form of detachment from the actual destruction resulting from that technology. Christoph conveyed how patents were and still are not only scientific documents but also a literary and visual genre with a certain level of materiality. At the same time, patent drawings such as the stroboscope adhered to a specific logic and a reductionist aesthetic standard. Christoph illustrated how patent drawings had become a profession by, at least, the 1940s, with its own instruction books. At the same time, the legal framework surrounding the use of patent drawings suggests an interesting legislative relationship between word and image that requires further study in the future.
Investigating the stroboscope’s history further ties into more general insights from the history of photographic technology, such as the early impulse of this medium to reduce visual ‘noise’, to slow down events, and to detach objects from their context, stripping them of excessive detail and rendering them entities of singular interest. As a further demonstration on how this patented-visualised technique actually worked, fascinating and ominous at the same time, Christoph showed a few short video sequences of nuclear explosions created with the aid of the stroboscope.
The following discussion emphasized, among other themes, the inventor as not only creator of devices, but as an artistic agent as well, challenging a binary opposition between copyright and patents. Another topic was the emergence of a visual language in patents as a system for representing the functional and invisible. Another relevant medium closely connected to the stroboscope was of course early film and its (mass) production of objects of desire.
Christoph Rodrigo de la Torre is a PhD candidate in Art History, Theory and Criticism at University of California, San Diego.
Video by LiU communications officer Per Wistbo Nibell. Text by Johan Larson Lindal who also chaired the event.