How Photographs Were Transmitted by Wire in 1937

An old video published by Charlie Dean Archives on YouTube shows a dramatization of how photographs were captured in the field and transmitted by wire in the 1930s, fueling fast-paced news decades before the internet was even an idea, let alone the global communications network it is today.

PetaPixel spotted the video on Reddit, where many commenters write that they had no idea how photos used to be transmitted, or how wire services operated.

In the dramatized video above, a newspaper is preparing for its next issue when it receives a tip that a pilot will attempt a plane takeoff from the top of a speeding car.

“Some crazy stuntman is going to try taking off in an aeroplane from the top of an automobile this afternoon out in the valley. Sounds like a story!” a reporter says to his boss.

Wirephoto history video

“Take off from an automobile on a dirt road? Can he make it? It’ll be a good picture either way. I’ll send Mack out with a snapper,” the boss replies.

“It’s 40 miles out to the valley, we’ll never make today’s paper,” the reporter contests.

“Oh, wirephoto will make it if they pull it by 4 o’clock,” explains the manager.

Wirephoto history video

Wirephoto, also known as telephotography or radiophoto, is the process of sending pictures using telegraph, telephone, or radio communications. The process has its roots in 1898, when Ernest A. Hummel, a Minnesota watchmaker, developed the Telediagraph. By the next year, Hummel’s machine was in the offices of the New York Herald, Chicago Times Herald, St. Louis Republic, Boston Herald, and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Wirephoto history video

The system used synchronized rotating drums with a platinum stylus that acted as an electrode. An image was drawn on tinfoil using non-conductive ink, and then the circuit opened or closed depending upon if the stylus was hitting the tinfoil or the ink. On the other end of a line, a second machine could receive the signals and then replicate the original drawing.

The same idea of sending signals to be replicated using communication lines carried over to the wirephoto machines used by major media outlets throughout the 20th century. Western Union transmitted a halftone photo in 1921, with AT&T following in 1924 and RCA in 1926. The Associated Press began its famous wirephoto service in 1935. The Associated Press celebrated the 85th anniversary of its AP Wirephoto service in 2019 with a fantastic article.

Wirephoto history video

Wirephoto technology transformed how journalists covered the news, and, perhaps just as importantly, how people consumed it.

“Speed — the life’s blood of a newspaper. Speed, speed, speed. Train, telegraph, airplane, telephone, and radio — get the story, get it to the paper, get the paper on the street,” the narrator says in the old video.

Wirephoto history video

“Every available development of science and engineering has been utilized to get the story to the reader in the shortest possible time. And now, the latest miracle of news gathering, sending pictures by wire, has lifted the curtain on a new era in newspaper history. Traveling almost as fast as the telephone story, wired photos now go across the continent with the speed of light.”

An image is transmitted one line at a time for wired photo transmission. A photo is rotated on a drum while light is focused on the picture. As the drum rotates, the light scans the image from top to bottom along a single line. Simultaneously, the revolving drum is moved slowly to a side, so the machine can scan more than a single line of the photo.

The light scanning the photo goes through an amplification apparatus and into an optical structure that funnels the light through a thin tube and out through an even narrower aperture. The light goes through the aperture and into a photoreactive cell, where it strikes a reactive metal. Depending upon the intensity of the light — which is determined by how light or dark the gray on the original black and white photo is — the reactive metal sends a stronger or weaker electrical signal.

Wirephoto history video

This signal is transmitted over telephone wires and on the receiving machine, the strength of the transmitted electrical signals determines the amount of light applied to a negative rotated on a similar revolving drum. Inside the receiving device, there’s a neon tube that accepts the electrical signal, with its light output determined by the strength of the received signal. The more light sent through the receiving machine, the brighter that line will be on the negative. By replicating electrical signals from the transmission machine onto a negative, each line of an original black-and-white photo can be faithfully reproduced remotely.

Summarizing the process, the narrator explains, “A lamp light scans the original picture. A white spot on the picture makes a lot of current, and lots of current makes lots of light on the receiving machine, so it exposes the negative more heavily at that point. A black spot on the picture reflects no light back into the photoelectric cell, no current passes over the telephone line, the neon tube remains dim, and the negative line is not exposed.”

Wirephoto history video

While wirephoto services represented a major technological advancement, the process could be slow. For example, even in the 1970s, while transmission machines were much smaller, they were still sluggish. The technology even adapted to color photography in the 1980s. Acclaimed sports photographer Brad Mangin told PetaPixel in 2015 that photos could sometimes take half an hour to send over the wire. Nonetheless, before photos could be sent using wires, photos were transported by train and plane, which took days or hours.