BAD IDEA: Smell-o-VisionThe quixotic history of an improbable, impossible machine.

BAD IDEA: Smell-o-VisionThe quixotic history of an improbable, impossible machine.

  • Words John Ovans
  • Photograph Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Despite the faulty execution of Smell-o-Vision, there is no questioning the wider fact that smells have the capacity to transport us. This is why a team of researchers at various European institutions recently embarked on a $3 million project to identify and recreate the continent’s lost smells. Called Odeuropa, the endeavor will deploy artificial intelligence to screen old texts for descriptions of smells as far back as the 12th century, as well as scanning period paintings for aromatic information.

History, the researchers argue, has sometimes been shaped by smell: Will Tullett, a smell historian at Anglia Ruskin University, gives the example of London’s Great Stink—a hot spell in the summer of 1858 that finally convinced parliament to approve the construction of a modern sewage system, rather than dumping it straight into the river that flowed past the building’s windows.

Even when smell isn’t instrumental, it’s often instructive. At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, the smell of horses, gunpowder, sweat and Napoleon’s heady cologne (he carried a bottle in his boot) are offered on scent sticks to tour groups looking at Jan Willem Pieneman’s 1824 painting The Battle of Waterloo. Odeuropa hopes to extend the use of smell within museums, taking us far further back in time than cinema ever could.

GOOD IDEA: THE SMELL OF HISTORY

The movie industry is currently searching for ways to get butts back in seats. One thing it is unlikely to consider is resurrecting Smell-o-Vision, a much-hyped “immersive experience” that was meant to be the next big thing, then wasn’t.

First introduced during the 1939 New York World’s Fair by Hans Laube—a Swiss advertising exec-turned-“world-famous osmologist,” according to the press materials—the premise was that theaters could be rigged up with a system known as the “smell brain,” which would release odors via tubing to individual audience seats. 

The smell brain made its cinematic debut much later with the 1960 film Scent of Mystery starring Elizabeth Taylor, where aromas were central to the storyline. The smells emitted—which included pipe tobacco, shoe polish and perfume—mingled together in peculiar and unholy combinations. As The New York Times reported, “Patrons sit there sniffing and snuffling like a lot of bird dogs trying hard to catch the scent.” Smell-o-Vision’s grand premiere was also its farewell performance. The film was quietly retitled Holiday in Spain and redistributed without the smell track.

Laube’s is just one of many valiant efforts to harness smell’s evocative associations to take audiences deeper into a fictional world. One of the earliest attempts recorded is a 1906 screening of the Pasadena Rose Bowl Game at a theater in Forest City, Pennsylvania, where cotton balls were dipped in rose essence and suspended in front of fans. In this century, the seemingly boundless potential of digital technology has brought the idea back into circulation. The app-controlled Cyrano Scent Machine, a device you could plug into your smartphone to emit smells along with video, was touted as the next big thing in smart technology. Attempts to buy it today lead you to a 404 page. 

The quest to create a smell-along experience that actually works will certainly be resurrected by some future dreamer with new tools to hand. For now, there are always scratch-and-sniff cards—most famously employed in 1981 by the transgressive filmmaker John Waters in Polyester as a parody of Smell-o-Vision.1 Later on a DVD commentary track, Waters remarked that, “I actually got the audience to pay to smell shit!”

( 1 ) On entering the theater, viewers were given “Odorama” cards. Instructions on the screen indicated when to sniff the scents, which included flatulence, model building glue, gasoline and smelly shoes. Waters later accused Nickelodeon of lifting his idea wholesale for the more family-friendly film Rugrats Go Wild.

Despite the faulty execution of Smell-o-Vision, there is no questioning the wider fact that smells have the capacity to transport us. This is why a team of researchers at various European institutions recently embarked on a $3 million project to identify and recreate the continent’s lost smells. Called Odeuropa, the endeavor will deploy artificial intelligence to screen old texts for descriptions of smells as far back as the 12th century, as well as scanning period paintings for aromatic information.

History, the researchers argue, has sometimes been shaped by smell: Will Tullett, a smell historian at Anglia Ruskin University, gives the example of London’s Great Stink—a hot spell in the summer of 1858 that finally convinced parliament to approve the construction of a modern sewage system, rather than dumping it straight into the river that flowed past the building’s windows.

Even when smell isn’t instrumental, it’s often instructive. At the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for example, the smell of horses, gunpowder, sweat and Napoleon’s heady cologne (he carried a bottle in his boot) are offered on scent sticks to tour groups looking at Jan Willem Pieneman’s 1824 painting The Battle of Waterloo. Odeuropa hopes to extend the use of smell within museums, taking us far further back in time than cinema ever could.

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