Before Skype and Instagram there was Radiophoto and Videovoice

Friday, June 5, 2015

Today, we enjoy an abundance of ways in which to communicate with each other, thanks in large part to computers and smartphones connected to the internet. In particular, our ability to take a photo or video and share it with a wide audience has never been easier or more commonplace than it is today. While it’s doubtful that David Sarnoff anticipated "selfies" or Instagram, there was considerable interest in finding a practical way to quickly send photographs electronically nearly a century ago.

Attempts to send images over wire go back to the 19th century and involved a variety of developments until Western Union and AT&T began providing such services in the early 1920s. However, it was two scientists at RCA, Richard H. Ranger and Charles J. Young, who developed the technology to successfully transmit images wirelessly. Dubbed, “Radiophoto,” the first wireless photographs were transmitted by RCA from New York to London on November 29, 1924.

A man uses a RCA machine to send a photograph

RCA radio facsimile transmitter (left) and receiver (right) in the process of transmitting a photograph, circa 1924.

To send a photograph, it was placed on a rotating drum that exposed the photo to a photoelectric cell that converted the varying shades of light and dark into electric signals that could be transmitted via radio. On the receiving end, this signal was reversed and a magnetically controlled ink spray recreated the image on paper, one dot at at time, similar to an impressionist painting. In some respects, this technique was similar to what was used in the inkjet fax machines that were found in almost every office throughout the 1990s.

A woman's portrait quality is shown as an original and after it's transmitted by radio. It's darker and has some lines through it.

It’s not just with photos that we can be grateful for the ease with which we can now share them on Facebook and elsewhere, but increasingly this is true of video as well. Looking back at earlier efforts to use television or video as a communication tool, we can be equally appreciative for the ways that Skype or Facetime simplify this task today. While RCA cameras and television systems were used in the Apollo program, RCA was not quite on the cutting edge when it released its Videovoice system in 1971. Similar to the Picturephone system that AT&T debuted in 1964, the RCA Videovoice system was designed to allow telephone callers to also see a live image of the person to which they were speaking.

A man talks on the photo while being able to see himself and his meeting partner on small televisions

Videovoice demonstration between New York and Tokyo.

While technologies such as Radiophoto and Videovoice never achieved the ubiquity or ease of use of similar services we enjoy today, we can nevertheless appreciate the shared vision that drove earlier generations of scientists and engineers to accomplish similar goals.

Kenneth Cleary is the Sarnoff Project Archivist in the Audiovisual and Digital Initiatives Department.