An olfactory excursion, part 2: Odour television

Picture: Plaster of Paris dogs – the remains of a model explaining how odour TV might have worked. See below…

Notebook: 11 March 2018 | SMELL

I’d just completed a couple of days design teaching in Sheffield and I was travelling home on the train. At Nottingham a flood of passengers poured off but they were quickly replaced by another hoard that clambered on. Out the corner of my eye I saw a rosey faced woman bustle down the aisle and take her seat and as she passed, I smelt her go by. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell – quite the opposite. Outside it was cold and I imagined that the woman had had a long walk to the station because she had picked up the smell of the cool fresh air – that same delicious fragrance that you notice when you gather in freshly laundered washing that has spent a day drying in the fresh air on a washing line. It was a comforting smell and it reminded me of my mother.

When I was a child, mum had worked part time as a nurse at a hospital on the other side of town. Mum never learnt to drive and so she would walk the two miles to the hospital and then two miles back again. Often I would come back from school to an empty house and I would look forward to mum returning from work and when she came through the door I was aware of the smell of the cold air on her clothes mixed in with the leather smells of her bag and gloves. Then we would sit down together and have a chat over a cup of tea (before the days I had turned into a moody and uncommunicative adolescent…). Perfumers have tried to capture that delicious fresh air smell in a bottle with varying degrees of success and if you look you can sniff out their different concoctions.

I’ve always been intrigued by the power of our sense of smell – how we can catch a scent in the air that sometimes unlocks a strong emotion and reminds us of a time or place – and for a brief moment on that train, I had been transported, not to my home in Norfolk, but to a small house in Berkshire where I had grown up and had sat waiting for mum to return from work.

This is the second of two articles about our underused sense of smell. In the first I wrote about my great uncle’s collection of perfume ingredients: An Olfactory Excursion, Part 1: Uncle Ernie. My follow-up piece, Odour Television, is about a three-dimensional display explaining how a smell-emitting television could work and it was created for my final-year major design project as a graphics student at the Royal College of Art.

It was 1982 and I was studying for an MA in Graphic Information (information design) and in the 2nd year I had to undertake a 10,000 word dissertation on a topic of my choosing that was related to art and design. Three years earlier I’d written a worthy but pretty dull thesis on map design for my BA, and so second time around, I was determined to research and write about a subject that had a bit more spice – and something that intrigued me but that I knew little about. Digging around for a topic, I remembered my great uncle’s box of perfume ingredients which had sparked my fascination in our sense of smell – the most mysterious and least understood of the five senses. It felt like a rich hunting ground for research. I read as much on the subject that I could lay my hands on – not just on perfumery and our emotional response to smell – but on the physiology of olfaction as well. I quickly discovered that scientists didn’t really understand how smell worked and still to this day they argue over whether different smells are identified in the nose by the physical shape of individual molecules or by vibrations that the molecules emit.

With my research complete, I settled on an angle and wrote up the thesis. It seemed only natural to have some physical smells that the reader could refer to and sniff as they went along, and so I gathered together eight odours that were relevant to the copy, placed them in sealable test-tubes and packaged the whole thing in a box – which is pictured below.

Perfume bottle symbols in the left-hand margin indicated to the reader when to sniff one of the accompanying smells. The thesis was typeset on an IBM Selectric Composer typewriter in Letter Gothic – a typewriter face with a large x-height designed in 1956 and a sister face to the well known Courier designed by Howard Kettler a year earlier.

Now for the smelly telly bit and those dogs…

When I was carrying out my research, I had free and easy access to the library at the Imperial College of Science and Technology which was just down the road from the RCA. Like many libraries, it smelt of musty old books and furniture polish. On a shelf full of old bound copies of Electronics and Power magazine I came across an obscure feature in the January 1968 issue entitled ‘How About Odour Television?’ by an electrical engineer called JP Deignan.

He’d mused on the challenge of inventing odour television and had come up with a crazy, tongue-in-cheek idea. As I wrestled with his description of how it might work I sketched his idea on a scrap of paper to make more sense of it. Now, remember that the MA course that I was undertaking specialised in information design – that is taking complex information and presenting it in such a way that the user can understand it much more easily (think of a well designed timetable or the London Underground map). Reading Deignan’s odour TV feature I knew it would make a great subject for the major design project that had to be undertaken as part of my final-year show. I would explain his thinking and his proposal for odour TV in the form of a diagram – not as a flat diagram on paper – but as an interactive three-dimensional display.

JP Deignan’s idea was based on the theory (at the time) that there were seven ‘primary’ odours that could be mixed together to produce any smell – in the same way that we can mix the three primary colours to make any hue. He proposed that a television could contain those seven primaries which would be heated by certain amounts, mixed together and then released into the room to match the pictures on screen. The big problem he faced, which scientists have still to find an answer to, was: how on earth do you record a smell (in order that you can then transmit it in the case of TV) and then reproduce it? We can record sound and images but we are still unable to capture a scent. Deignan’s off-beat and playful solution was to use Pavlovian trained dogs – with each dog trained to recognise one of the seven primary smells. More on the dogs in a moment…

I produced many sketches for my three-dimensional diagram and then spent two or three weeks camped in the RCA workshops slowly building my model which was finally assembled in situ as part of the final show. The only record I have of the exhibit are some blurry photos which I’ve reproduced below. I hope they help explain JP Deignan’s novel idea – I’ve added in extended picture captions to help.

An overview of the odour television model with (l-r) the TV studio, odour/air mixing boxes, the odour detectors (21 dogs!), amplifier/modulator and radio mast and the television. Above the model are examples of the seven primary smells. The white coiled tube on the left, runs down from a bag (out of sight) that acts as a reservoir of odourless air.

The seven primary smells: musky, camphoraceous, floral, peppermint, ethereal, pungent and putrid. Mix these together in different combinations to reproduce all known smells…

1. The Television Studio. TV chef Fanny Craddock is making a strawberry flan. The smell of strawberries is made up from a mix of the primary odours – 14% musky, 48% floral, 26% ethereal and 12% pungent (0% camphoraceous, 0% peppermint, 0% putrid)

2 The Mixing Boxes. The smell of the strawberry flan passes from the studio through a tube where some of it is diluted with pure odourless air. The reason for this will become clear in a moment. Each primary odour is visually represented by small coloured balls with white balls used to show pure odourless air.

3 The Odour Detectors. In each cage sits a dog. The dogs have been Pavlovian trained to react to the presence of just one of the 7 primary odours. There are 3 rows of 7 dogs and the smell of the strawberry flan reaches each dog. The front row of dogs receive 100% of the strawberry smell, the second row receive 50% strawberry/50% odourless air and the back row receive 25% strawberry/75% odourless air – so the dogs in the middle and back rows are subjected to weaker concentrations of the odour. This means that only the primary odours present in larger quantities (eg the 48% floral) will be detected in the back row. So 21 dogs allows for the possibility of over 16,000 different odours – the more dogs – the higher the ‘definition’ of the odour service. When a dog detects its own primary smell it triggers a microswitch.


4 Transmitting the Signals. The electric signals triggered by the dogs are sent to an amplifier and modulator and are transmitted by radio waves to the television.

5 The Television. The TV contains the 7 primary odours in individual containers in a small compartment. The transmitted radio waves are decoded and the relevant containers are heated by varying amounts to release a particular amount of each odour. Hey presto! – the smell of the strawberry flan is artificially concocted within the television and is ejected into the viewer’s room through a tube the protrudes from the top of the TV.

When the handle on the ‘drawer’ was pulled, the dogs that had detected the smell of strawberry flan would move forward and trigger their imaginary switches, the radio mast would light up and a puff of strawberry essence would be sprayed from the nozzle on the top of the TV.

The degree show came and went. I managed to pick up a brief mention in The Guardian newspaper which I’ve reproduced here.

After the show, the model was disassembled and placed in a large cardboard box. In the intervening years, much of it fell apart and was thrown away and all I have left are the 21 plaster of Paris dogs (pictured top), my sketches, my model of Fanny Craddock, odd lengths of tube and mixing boxes (see 2 above) that connected the various elements and an old fashioned barber shop spray diffuser that contained the strawberry odour that was hidden inside the TV.

When I left the RCA maybe I should have thought about a career in exhibition design (or perfumery!) but instead, I returned to a career in publishing.

Thanks to JP Deignan and his article ‘How About Odour Television?’ from Electronics and Power magazine, January 1968 and reproduced here.