How Photos Were Transmitted by Wire in the 1930s?


Starting in the 1920s, wire photography services used technology similar to fax machines to send news pictures across the Atlantic much faster than before. These images helped the public visualize how new infrastructure was changing the layout of modern life.

Let’s learn the mechanics and transformative power of wire photography during this period.

The Birth of Wire Photography

In the late 19th century, Ernest A. Hummel’s invention of wire photography laid the groundwork for rapid image transmission. Hummel’s innovative method employed synchronized rotating drums and a platinum stylus to scan photos line by line, converting visual information into electrical signals that could be transmitted over telephone wires.

By the early 20th century, wirephoto technology started gaining traction. Western Union successfully transmitted a halftone photograph in 1921, followed by AT&T in 1924 and RCA in 1926. These milestones showcased the growing potential of wire photography.

The Associated Press (AP) further revolutionized news coverage by launching its wirephoto service in 1935, allowing journalists to transmit images quickly and efficiently.

The process involved scanning images line by line with a rotating drum. The light intensity varied based on the grayscale of the original photo, converting these variations into electrical signals for rapid transmission over long distances.

Wirephoto technology notably hastened the sharing of visual information, replacing slower methods like trains or planes. This advancement marked a crucial moment in the history of image transmission, solidifying its importance in modern communication.

The Bartlane Transmission System

Developed in the early 1920s by H.G. Bartholomew and M.D. McFarlane, the Bartlane Transmission System revolutionized image transmission by enabling photographs to be sent via undersea telegraph cables.

The Bartlane Transmission System was not limited to simple engravings as it could transmit halftone photographs. Halftone images, composed of tiny dots, produced much more detailed and realistic pictures compared to older methods. This enhancement significantly improved the speed and efficiency of photo transmission, making the system indispensable by the 1930s.

Key features of the Bartlane Transmission System include:

Feature Description Impact
Developers H.G. Bartholomew and M.D. McFarlane Pioneers in visual communication technology
Transmission Medium Undersea telegraph cables Enabled long-distance photo transmission
Image Type Halftone photographs Provided higher quality and more detailed images

The Bartlane Transmission System laid the foundation for modern image transmission technologies, cementing its place as a pivotal development in the history of visual communication.

Converting Images to Electrical Signals

Early scanning techniques turned photographs into electrical signals for transmission. They adjusted light intensity to match grayscale values, allowing the signals to travel efficiently over telephone lines. Solving transmission line challenges was essential for accurately reproducing images at the receiving end.

Early Scanning Techniques in the 1930s

In the 1930s, early scanning techniques revolutionized the transmission of photos by converting them into electrical signals. This process involved using a lamp to scan the image mounted on a rotating drum. As the drum rotated, the lamp’s light swept across the picture, transforming variations in light intensity into corresponding electrical signals. These signals could then be transmitted via wire, enabling the remote recreation of the image.

Here’s a detailed look at the process:

  • Lamp Illumination: A powerful lamp illuminated the photo, with light intensity varying according to the grayscale of the image.
  • Rotating Drum Mechanism: The photo was mounted on a drum that rotated to ensure the entire image was scanned line by line.
  • Conversion to Electrical Signals: As the lamp scanned the image, changes in light intensity were converted into electrical signals.
  • Signal Transmission: The electrical signals were sent over telephone wires, carrying the visual data to a distant location.
  • Image Reproduction: At the receiving end, the electrical signals were used to recreate the original picture, preserving its details.

Signal Modulation Methods

In the 1930s, signal modulation methods allowed images to be converted into electrical signals for transmission over telephone wires. A photo was placed on a rotating drum and scanned by a beam of light. The light’s intensity varied with the grayscale of the image, ensuring accurate capture of different shades. This adjustment was key to accurately representing the photo in electrical signals.

As the drum rotated, the photo was scanned line by line, with each line’s information converted into electrical signals. This ensured every part of the image was captured and transmitted in sequence, preserving the photo’s integrity. The signals were then sent over telephone wires and converted back into visual form.

Wirephoto technology’s efficient use of signal modulation and light scanning enabled quick and accurate image transmission, showcasing the technological ingenuity of the 1930s.

Transmission Line Challenges

Transmitting images over telephone lines in the 1930s faced numerous challenges. Particularly in maintaining the clarity and accuracy of converted electrical signals. The process required converting the light intensity from the grayscale of the original photo into reliable electrical signals for transmission, a central aspect of wirephoto technology.

  • Light Intensity Variation: Accurately capturing and converting the grayscale’s light intensity variations into electrical signals was essential.
  • Signal Degradation: Electrical signals often degraded over long distances, potentially reducing image clarity.
  • Noise Interference: Telephone lines were susceptible to electrical noise and interference, distorting the transmitted image.
  • Limited Bandwidth: The narrow bandwidth of telephone lines restricted the detail and resolution of the transmitted image.
  • Synchronization Issues: Perfect synchronization between the sending and receiving ends was crucial for maintaining image accuracy.

Despite these obstacles, wirephoto technology was a significant milestone. By converting images into electrical signals and transmitting them over telephone lines, it enabled efficient visual information transmission, laying the groundwork for modern image-sharing technologies.

Role of Telegraph and Telephone Networks

Sömmerings electric telegraph

Telegraph and telephone networks were instrumental in enabling the swift transmission of photos during the 1930s. These communication lines were foundational for wirephoto transmission, allowing visual information to be sent rapidly over long distances. By utilizing telegraph and telephone systems, the technology transformed the sharing of images, particularly in the field of journalism. Prior to these networks, distributing photos was a slow process, but wirephoto transmission changed that dramatically, enabling the quick dissemination of photographs.

Here’s an overview of how telegraph and telephone networks facilitated this process:

Aspect Details
Network Utilized Telegraph and telephone lines
Key Technology Wirephoto transmission
Primary Use Rapid dissemination of photos
Impact on Journalism Revolutionized visual information sharing

Thanks to these networks, news agencies could send photos nationwide within hours instead of days, which was crucial for timely news reporting. This rapid transmission allowed newspapers to include current images in their issues. The synergy between wirephoto technology and telegraph and telephone infrastructure was transformative, laying the groundwork for modern photojournalism.

Undersea Cable Transmission

Early transmission techniques for photos using undersea cables overcame significant technical challenges. These cables, connecting continents like North America and Europe, enabled rapid image transmission through the Bartlane process.

This revolutionized international communication by making visual news swiftly accessible across the globe.

Early Transmission Techniques

During the 1930s, undersea telegraph cables connecting continents like Europe and North America transformed the way images were transmitted.

The Bartlane process facilitated the digital encoding of images that could be sent through undersea cables, which marked another breakthrough in visual communication and news reporting.

Using this method, news agencies could send photographs across the Atlantic in a matter of hours. This innovation provided newspapers with timely images, enhancing their ability to report on international events with immediacy.

Key aspects of the early transmission techniques include:

  • Bartlane Process: A method that allowed digital encoding of images for transmission.
  • Undersea Cables: Essential infrastructure connecting continents, enabling global communication.
  • Wire Photography: The practice of sending photos over telegraph wires.
  • Visual Communication: Enhanced by faster image transmission.
  • News Reporting: Revolutionized with the ability to quickly share visual content.

Technical Challenges Overcome

Building on the Bartlane process, engineers had to solve problems like signal loss and synchronization to transmit photos clearly over undersea cables. Long distances caused significant signal loss, distorting the images. To fix this, they developed stronger signal amplifiers and better synchronization methods.

The Bartlane process was an important discovery in wire photography. It used coded signals to send images, which were then rebuilt using half-tone techniques. This broke photos into dots of different sizes, creating clear images. However, transmitting these dots accurately over long distances was a big challenge.

Undersea telegraph cables connected continents like North America and Europe, making global communication possible. As the Bartlane process and cable reliability improved, it made wire photography a powerful tool for news organizations. It enabled real-time photo transmission around the world.

Adoption and Impact of Wirephoto Technology by Media Outlets

In the 1930s, media outlets rapidly adopted wirephoto technology, revolutionizing news coverage through the swift transmission of images. The introduction of wirephoto technology enabled media organizations to incorporate news images almost immediately into their reports, significantly enhancing the visual aspect of journalism. This technology allowed for more immediate and impactful reporting by providing visual representations of breaking news, rather than relying solely on text.

Wirephoto technology fundamentally changed how media outlets approached storytelling. The capability to quickly transmit photos meant that visual depictions of events could be shared almost in real-time. This not only captivated audiences but also provided a more comprehensive understanding of events.

  • Speed of Transmission: Wirephoto technology drastically reduced the time required to receive and publish news images.
  • Enhanced Visual Reporting: Media outlets could illustrate stories with relevant and timely images, improving the overall reporting quality.
  • Immediate Impact: Rapid photo reception allowed for more dynamic and engaging news presentations.
  • Broader Reach: Visual elements helped convey stories to a wider audience, including those who mightn’t be literate.
  • Competitive Edge: Media outlets that adopted wirephoto technology gained a significant advantage over those that did not.

The adoption of wirephoto technology redefined news reporting, making it faster, more engaging, and visually compelling, thus enhancing the overall news consumption experience.

Impact on Journalism

The Associated Press (AP) Wirephoto service revolutionized journalism by using telephone wires to send images across continents. The process involved a photoelectric cell scanned an image on a rotating drum, converting light into electrical signals sent over wires. This technology could also transmit sketches, broadening visual reporting possibilities.

With wirephoto technology, newspapers could include images with their stories, making the news more engaging and immediate. The speed of reporting became crucial, as readers expected timely, visually supported news.

This shift highlighted the importance of visual transmission in shaping public perception and understanding of events. Wirephoto technology didn’t just change how news was reported but also transformed how news was experienced.

Legacy of Wire Photography

Wirephoto technology revolutionized photojournalism in the 1930s, and its legacy continues to influence how we consume news today. Pioneers like Ernest A. Hummel and the Associated Press played crucial roles in transforming news delivery. The innovative use of synchronized rotating drums and a platinum stylus allowed images to be transmitted quickly over long distances.

The impact of wire photography is still evident in modern journalism. The immediacy we now expect from news outlets can be traced back to this early technology. French designers and engineers significantly refined these systems, ensuring high-quality image reproduction in newspapers worldwide. The New York Supreme Court even recognized the importance of wirephoto services in providing timely and accurate reporting.

In today’s digital age, which emphasizes real-time information and visual storytelling, the legacy of wire photography remains strong. The instant photos we see online today are a direct descendant of the synchronized rotating drums that once brought the world closer together.


In the 1930s, wire photography revolutionized the way news was shared, enabling rapid transmission of photos over telephone and telegraph lines. This technology, pioneered by innovators like Ernest A. Hummel and further advanced by the Associated Press, made it possible for newspapers to include timely and engaging images with their stories. Overcoming technical challenges like signal degradation and synchronization, wire photography laid the foundation for modern visual communication. Its impact on journalism was profound, transforming not just how news was reported, but also how it was experienced by the public.

Share this


Why Does Beer Taste Better When Ice Cold?

You've probably noticed that beer tastes much better when it's ice cold, but have you ever wondered why? The answer lies in the science of temperature and its effect on the perception of flavors. When beer is chilled the cold temperature numbs the taste buds slightly, which can make the beer taste crisper and less bitter. This cooling effect can also...

Chang Beer: Thailand’s Beloved Brew

Known for its unique blend and global acclaim, discover what makes Chang Beer Thailand's beloved brew since 1995.

Kozel: The Czech Republic’s Smooth and Flavorful Beer

Mix your ideal blend with Kozel, the Czech Republic's smooth and flavorful beer, and discover a new world of taste.

Recent articles

More like this