Popular photography was a novelty. The black box camera recorded scenes for the family album, and tintype snapshot still did a thriving business at fairs and amusement parks. When American newspapers first began to print news photos from halftone engravings, Kent Cooper was an unknown cub reporter. His entry into journalism coincided with the beginnings of modern newspaper photography. The more he thought of pictures the more convinced he became that they would play an important part in the newspaper of the future.
All though his newspaper career he had felt that a way must be found to deliver pictures to newspapers as quickly as the written word. At first that seemed almost impossible. Ever since the 1850's inventors and scientists had labored to perfect some reliable method for telegraphing pictures. A few experimental systems were devised, but they were either impractical or fell far short of solving the problem.
The laboratories of communications companies persevered and finally were able to announce the development of equipment which would transmit pictures by wire. A commercial system was set up by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company in the early 1920's and opened irregular operations with combination sending and receiving stations located in eight of the metropolitan centers.
The first news of the engineer's success excited Cooper, but critical examination of the invention disappointed him. Almost an hour was required to prepare a picture for sending, the speed of transmission was slow, and the picture came out blurred, fuzzy, and otherwise indistinct. Detail disappeared and the total effect was a vague shadow of what the original had been. Telephotos continued unsatisfactory operation could not have but one result even in a picture-conscious era. On June, 1935, AT&T abandoned the system after spending $2,800,000 in an attempt to make it work.
Cooper refused to abandon hope that engineering research would win out. This time he did not have to wait long. Toward the end of 1933 Bell laboratories reported that, after ten years of experiments along entirely different scientific lines, it had developed a completely new picture sending apparatus. The company claimed that the new machine could send pictures by wire at two and a half times the speed of the telephoto and that the transmitted picture was so nearly perfect it was hard to detect the difference between it and the original. Here seemed to be the scientific miracle he had been awaiting.
Initial transmissions from the laboratory, while an improvement over the old AT&T system, still did not generate a high enough quality to reproduce well. Another year and a half was spent perfecting the system. Finally, at 3 AM on New Year's Day, 1935 a formal demonstration took place. Engineers at the wire control room at New York headquarters made last minute adjustments on the eight-foot panel containing bulbs, wires, indicators, and wavering needles. Around them stood intent members of the staff, copy boys, radio announcers, busy newsreel camera crews, and a cluster of other onlookers.
Attention was focused on an odd looking machine which seemed out of place in the newsroom atmosphere. The contraption rested on a heavy metal base in the center of the floor and supported a horizontal cylinder. Nearby was the large panel with its glowing bulbs, a bank of dials, a telephone, and a loud speaker. Next to the panel stood a power unit enclosed in a latticed cage of thin steel.
The technicians bent over the machine. The onlookers talked in a whisper. Along a special ten-thousand mile network of leased wires, other engineers and technicians stood over machines in twenty-five cities from coast to coast, all waiting to see if Wirephoto, the name given to the service, could send high fidelity pictures over a nationwide circuit just as news was sent.
The picture selected for the first sending reported headline news? A transport air liner had crashed deep in the snow-covered Adirondack Mountains. Searchers had combed the wild country on foot and by air for days trying to find the wrecked plane. Finally one party reached the spot where the ship had crashed. A staff cameraman snapped the scene as the half-frozen survivors greeted their rescuers.
Rushed to New York and the darkrooms, the wet picture came out of the developing tank and passed the photo desk for an identifying caption. Then it went to the experts at the new black machine. They took the picture - an ordinary print - wrapped it, face up, around the horizontal cylinder and snapped the cylinder back into place. Out across the continent - in Chicago. San Francisco, Atlanta, Kansas City Boston, Syracuse. and Philadelphia, in twenty-five cities, attendants also made their receiving machines ready.
At New York, engineer Harold Carlson gave the photo-encased cylinder a final glance and stepped to the control board. He nodded to an assistant at the network telephone and out of the loud speakers in all twenty-five cites came the announcement: "This is New York calling all points. The first picture will be a shot of the plane survivors just rescued in the Adirondacks. Are you ready?"
Carlson clicked a button. The picture was on its way over the wires to papers in cities from one-hundred to 3,000 miles away. The cylinder revolved under the small hood-like housing which contained a photo-electric cell - the "eye" which was transmitting the photograph. From the machine came a high pitched, harmonic whistle. For eight minutes the penetrating whistle continued, then faded and finally ceased.
The moment the cylinder stopped rotating in New York, the receiving cylinders halted simultaneously in the twenty-five cities of the network. Attendants carried the cylinders into darkrooms, negatives were developed and within another few minutes picture editors had on their desk the finished photographic print of the air disaster scene which New York had transmitted.
In quality and fidelity the received pictures were so remarkable that only an expert could detect the difference between them and the original on the sending cylinder. There was no trace of the blurs, fuzz, and streaks which had made the old commercial telephoto unsatisfactory.
The first transmission was followed by an air shot of the wrecked transport and then by a series of photographs which gave a pictorial account of the New Year celebration. New York sent a picture of the scene at Times Square. Los Angeles took the circuit to contribute a picture of movie stars in Hollywood welcoming 1935. Miami added a picture of the holiday celebration on the beach front. Around fifty different photos were transmitted that night.
The day after the new Wirephoto service transmitted its first batch of pictures the trial of Bruno Hauptman for the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder began in Flemington, New Jersey. Wirephoto subscribers all over the country were able to publish the pictures of what was happening at Flemington the same day the events took place and published them side by side with the news articles. It was a compelling demonstration of the new service's ability to deliver pictures day after day on a story which monopolized front pages for weeks.
In the succeeding weeks and months there was no lack of events to transmit photos of: Amelia Earhart flew non-stop from Honolulu to California; G-men killed Fred and "Ma" Barker, long-sought criminals, in a furious gun battle in Florida; a new ship disaster took forty-five lives off the New Jersey coast; the navy's dirigible Macon broke up and sank near Point Sur, California. The trunk circuits brought the written stories and the Wirephoto network simultaneously flashed the pictures. Photo-journalism was here to stay.