This is how they sent photos by phone 100 years ago

This is how they sent photos by phone 100 years ago


Have you ever thought about how cool it is that you can snap a photo and immediately send it to someone across the world with your phone? What if I told you they also did it 100 years ago? In this video, The History Source shows you what sending photos “with the speed of light” was like in the 1930s.

The seeds of wirephoto were planted in the late 19th century with inventions like the Telediagraph, which dates back to 1895. Édouard Belin’s Bélinographe from 1913 also led to further development of this technology. These fax-machine-like systems could transmit line drawings via telegraph, laying the groundwork for later image transmission.

Édouard Belin and his Belinograph, 1907

Before wirephoto was introduced, photojournalists had to send their images via “snail mail.” In the best case scenario, they would reach the news outlets in a matter of hours, in case they would travel by plane. But when wirephoto came to the scene, images from remote locations could reach newsrooms quickly, in a matter of minutes.

Although the wirephoto process was invented in 1921, it wasn’t until a decade later that it became widely used. The early machines were large, expensive, and unreliable. The wirephotos produced during that time were usually of poor quality and were prone to telephone line breaks. When someone sent a wirephoto, it often took over an hour to arrive, and the sender had no way of knowing whether it would be a recognizable image at the other end. Therefore, before 1935, wirephotos were used only for particularly important breaking news.

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The impact of wirephoto

The Associated Press is the first that comes to mind when wirephoto is mentioned. And no wonder, considering that the AP launched its wirephoto service in 1935 and held the trademark for “AP Wirephoto” between 1963 and 2004. The first photograph sent by AP via wire showed a small plane crash that happened in December 1934 in the Adirondack Mountains of New York.

Wirephoto undoubtedly had a massive impact on news reporting at the time. Thanks to their newly acquired traveling speed, photos became an integral part of news reporting. This technology played a crucial role in documenting historical events like the Hindenburg disaster and World War II.

This technology also laid the groundwork for fax machines and all kinds of digital image transmission we’ve seen throughout decades. Ultimately, this also includes the smartphone you use to exchange memes with your best friend.

[Lead image credits: Donated by Anamosa Library and Learning Center, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons]