As I was idly flicking through one of those "this day in history" sites, I stumbled onto a "factoid": apparently, on this day, July 6, the first photograph was transmitted across the Atlantic by radio, in 1924. How interesting, I thought, and started to dig a little further. I'm not a historian of communication technology, but there is a lot more to the history of the fax than someone sending a radio transmission in 1924.
Alexander Bain patented an early fax machine in 1843. He called it a Recording Telegraph. The Bakewell company had their own version in the 1850s. These machines ran on similar principles, with a tape coated in electrolytic solution, and a stylus in contact with the tape creating a circuit. The transmission resulted in raised lettering traced on the tape.
Meanwhile, in France an alternative technology appeared with the Pantelegraph. It was in commercial use in the 1860s, sending communications between Paris and Lyons.
Text and line drawings could be sent, and it was primarily used to submit signatures for verification in bank transactions. It remained in operation til the 1870s (why it was so quickly abandoned after its introduction, I don't know—perhaps some technology history scholars can weigh in?)
In 1902, Arthur Korn developed telephotography, known as the Bildetelegraph. The ability to transmit photographs makes his invention the direct precursor of the fax machine. On the 18th October, 1906, he managed to transmit a photograph of Crown Prince William over a distance of 1800 km. A brilliant physicist, Korn was dismissed from his university position at the Berlin Institute of Technology in 1935 because of his Jewish background. He emigrated to the United States and went on to teach at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
At the same time as Korn, in France Édouard Belin was working on his own version of image transmission, which he called the Belinographe. By the 1920s, he had developed the method so that they could be sent by radio waves. It was his breakthroughs that went on to form the basis of the commercial fax machines, marketed thirty years later.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic: In 1924, Richard Ranger of RCA developed the transoceanic radiogram. A photograph of President Calvin Coolidge sent from New York to London on November 29, 1924 became the first photo picture reproduced by transoceanic radio facsimile.
So who sent the message on July 6, 1924? What technology did they use? I still don't know. The date is quoted on several sites, but no source is offered.
The "This Day in History" type websites are possibly full of many half-truths, and straws of history to be grasped at (or not). In my own research, I was amused to find in some newspapers from Havana of the 1840s, that they also had such features: telling readers what happened on "this day" in 1512 or 1796. So our desire to find connections with events in the past through even minor anniversaries goes back a long way.
We thought the telephone would be the death of written communication: but we probably write more than previous generations ever have, if you count typing on screens. We write one another messages all the time. With the rise of email, I notice that some people now almost never make phone calls. The telephone has gone from being the "informal" method of communication, to the one only used for something Very Important. I observe that my casual advice to call someone about a work matter is sometimes greeted with an absolute expression of horror, as though I had suggested showing up at someone's house and ringing their doorbell at 2AM. I would prefer it if many people called me than emailed. But perhaps I'm in a minority.
I was thinking this week, about the immediacy of our communication: that early fax transmission must have been a revelation to people, in the same way as the telegraph. Pretty soon photographs were being sent around the world for use by newspapers, so readers thousands of miles away could not only read about but see what was happening in other parts of the world. Of course, we take that for granted today with the internet and television.
In this week's New Yorker, there is a story by Nick Paumgarten, about the origins of online dating. These were dating services of the 1950s and 60s which relied on computer questionnaires to "match" people to potential dates by their common interests. However, the dating candidates still had to go and meet their dates in person. Today's online dating does not require that - it is possible to develop a relationship online before meeting in the real world. There was a discussion following on Paumgarten's story in this week's Slate Culture Gabfest too, in which I discovered it is possible to sign up for Ok Cupid to look for friends. (The gabfest crew were signing up a fake account to see how it worked).
Do people really do that? Go to online dating sites to find friends? I hadn't heard of it (but then I've never used an online dating site either). I guess I'm a cynic, because I always saw those "Platonic" listings on Craigslist and thought "Yeah, right—it's Craigslist, for heaven's sake". Is anyone really looking for a racquetball partner in between all the ads for anonymous sex and tranny hookers?
But the desire to connect remains. I have read through the quaint Lonely Hearts columns in old newspapers, and I marvel at how much easier we have it now. I have met people through the internet, including some people who have become very good friends. It is through reading people's blogs and twitter posts that I get to know them far better than I would, if we simply met at a cocktail party. I have the same experience sometimes in archives, reading the diary or letters of someone long dead - and feeling a pang of sympathy, thinking that I would want this person as a friend. Only with Twitter, that is magnified hundreds of times. The quickly-coined aphorism, that Facebook makes you hate people you already know and Twitter makes you love people you never met, seems very true.
When I was a child the concept of the penpal was quite magic, in its way. (I still marvel at the postal service, that I can scribble a few lines on a piece of card and it can be delivered to a friend thousands of miles away). We would write our nine year old thoughts about school and our families, and talk about our plans for the future with the stilted formality of children. While today I have the same footstamping impatience as the next person (why haven't you replied to my email yet it's been two hours dammit hurry up!), I miss the pace of letters. I would be interested to conduct a friendship only by letter, to see if it would be possible to run at that speed again—to resist the temptation to send an email or text message.
Waiting several weeks for a response put relationships on a different plane. I read a reference this week to a soldier in the American Civil War, saying that he thought the women had had it worse than the men during the war: a soldier knew he was still alive, but his mother or wife could only wait and worry. These days the letters most of us wait for are from institutions, and even then the letter is the bad news, like a bill or a job rejection (good news comes on the phone or by email).
But I wonder what the fax was, in July of 1924. Someone looking for a date, perhaps?