There are some technologies that change the world forever. One such technology was the wire transmission of images,‘wirephotos’. In fact, the wirephoto not only changed the field of photography forever, it also dramatically changed the field of journalism.
While most people may be shocked by the photos they see of the political unrest in the U.S, they are not shocked that there is a photo in the article. In our modern world, we’re quite accustomed to photos accompanying new stories, and in fact, we expect to see at least one relevant image. But, it wasn’t always the case that news stories had photographs.
The very first photograph published in a newspaper was titled, “A Scene in Shantytown, New York.” It ran in the March 4, 1880 edition of the New York Daily Graphic,
Source: via Wikipedia common, "A Scene in Shantytown, New York" appearing in the March 4, 1880 edition of the New York Daily Graphic and while phenomenal, between 1880 and 1935, a photo with a breaking news story remained a rare event, unless the story happened locally.
By this time in history, newspapers had been using the telegraph to receive news stories for almost a century, but any pictures that went with stories of faraway events had to be sent by mail, train, or later on, plane. That meant they wouldn’t arrive until days or possibly weeks later.
The technology to send images via wire was rapidly evolving since its concept in 1909 by Alfred Korn at the University of Munich and, by 1913 Édouard Belin successfully transmitted the first remote image using a photocell and phone line in France.
In 1920, Western Union transmitted the first photograph by phone line, and other telegraphic companies quickly followed suit. Then, in 1935, the Associated Press began its wirephoto service, providing the first network of machines transmitting and receiving photographs ‘shared’ across dozens of affiliated newspapers in the U.S. As the network grew in size, events from other parts of the world started appearing in the next morning edition of newspapers by the end of 1930.
How Does Wirephoto Technology Work?
The way people consumed news would never be the same after that, but just what is a wirephoto and how does it work? Though it was not the first time photos were transmitted by wire, the AP Wirephoto process was faster than any previous attempts--it took approximately eight minutes to receive a wirephoto after it was sent--and the results were higher in quality. That was an extraordinary improvement over any other technology. It allowed for almost real-time viewing of images as an event was occurring. While that’s not at all unusual today, that was incredible at this time in history. How does it work?
The process basically involved breaking the images into electrical lines of information and then reassembling those lines in the same order so that the image was intact. You can learn more about the process in this video:
Only a few days after the Associated Press introduced wirephotos, they used their new technology to transmit photographs shot at the murder trial of the Lindburgh baby. This was as sensational in its day as the OJ Simpson trial was in the 90s. The timely publication of photos to accompany the news stories about it cemented the public’s appetite for seeing photos of news events as they happened. After that, every important newspaper in the world wanted access to the technology, and other networks of agencies and newspapers started grouping in the US and Europe.
The Associated Press trademarked the term “wirephoto,” but that didn’t stop competitors from creating their own versions of the machine. The United Press, for example, used the word “telephoto,” and in Europe, they called the process, “Bellini,” after Édouard Belin.
The Associated Press trademarked the term “wirephoto”
The technology of the AP Wirephotos, as well as those of their competitors, fundamentally changed how Americans received their news. It wasn’t simply that photos could now be published with the news of a particular event--though that was groundbreaking in and of itself--it was that for the first time in history, the same photo of the same news event on the same day was being seen by millions of people around the world. We take it for granted today, but it was really Earth-shattering at that time.
With time, the photos were a dominant feature on the front page of newspapers and often overshadowed the headlines that accompanied them. That showed that wirephotos could be news all by themselves, even without the story. They were no longer just a helpful addition to the story, more and more, they were becoming the story. Think about some of the iconic photos like the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima, The Hindenburg disaster. These all began as AP Wirephotos, and today, they are treasured as part of our shared history.
"A Man on The Moon" Photograph of Edwin E. Aldrin taken by fellow astronaut Neil A. Armstrong during the first moonwalk. Wirephoto from Associated Press// NASA transmitted on July 31 1969.
How Wirephotos Changed the World
Part of the real power of the wirephoto, however, was the fact that it wasn’t just those iconic images that were being published in cities around the world, it was any photo relevant to a story. Before wirephotos were developed, it wouldn’t have been worth the cost to send a photo of the national spelling bee champion by train or plane. But, since the advent of the wirephoto, it was now easy to send that photo. That meant that Americans could see as well as read about relatively trivial events around the country, but the effect of that was anything but trivial. It helped to create a sense of community on the national level.
Wirephotos dominated in journalism all the way until the mid-1970s. Until that time, the Associated Press used traditional gelatin silver paper to print the photos, but in the 70s, they introduced the dry silver process which used laser beams shot onto dry silver paper to create the image. This process, unlike the traditional one, required no additional chemistry, collectors will easily identify these photographs for their yellowish appearance.
The dry-silver process introduced was quickly replaced by digital transmission of archives once the internet was developed in the late 1980s. This involved machines that could scan a negative and remotely transmit color images to the receiver. While full-color transmission of images was invented in the 1920s, it wasn’t popularized until the 1990s. By the early 2000s, real wire photographs began to disappear as they were replaced by digital archives all around the world. Still, none of these have the same indelible impact that wire press photos had on journalism, photography, and the building of a global community.
Head Curator of Photography