Retrotechtacular: electronic publishing in the 1930s
We live in the age of citizen journalism and the 24 hour news cycle. Reports on almost anything of interest can be obtained from many angles, both controlled and amateur. Just a few decades ago, people relied on daily newspapers, the radio and word of mouth for information. At the dawn of the television age, several radio stations in the United States participated in an experiment in broadcasting news by radio waves. But it was not an ordinary transmission. At the other end of the spectrum, a new type of receiver printed reports, line art, and images onto a long roll of paper.
Radio fax newspaper technology was presented to the public at the 1939 World’s Fair on two different stands. One was owned by an inventor named William Finch and the other was from RCA. Finch had recently made a name for himself with his talking journal, which incorporated the audio in a standard journal in the form of wavy lines along the edges that were read by a special device.
Differences in the paper
Both Finch and RCA receivers used continuous paper rolls, but only RCA units could cut it into sheets. RCA’s paper was 8.5 inches wide and was of standard composition, while Finch’s was about half the size and chemically treated. After a while, Crosley entered the game with their Reado receiver, which they sold at Macy’s for a lower price than Finch and RCA.
The receiver differences meant that content providers had to consider more than one type of equipment, much like app developers do today. News and photographs shown on RCA’s standard-width paper would look very different on Finch’s half-width paper.
What is this shrill noise?
If you have ever answered the phone when a fax machine is calling, you have an idea of the sound of the radio version of the fax transmission. For this reason, the FCC has required that faxed news broadcasts on the AM band be limited to the hours of 1:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. Several stations broadcast news on the relatively new FM band at all hours of the day. Broadcasters then experimented with multiplexing to transmit audio and fax on the same FM frequency.
Too many new technologies
Proponents of radio fax argued that it provided a permanent recording of the news and that reports heard over the radio could be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted. Several radio stations were owned by newspapers, and it is these stations that have tried the most to satisfy citizens’ thirst for information with this innovation. Many practitioners viewed the new technology as a supplement to daily newspapers and the radio rather than something that threatened to replace them.
Like any new technology, the radio newspaper was plagued with the chicken and egg problem of consumer adoption. No technology starts without early adopters, and where there is no audience, there are no advertisers. Receivers took an average of 15 minutes to print a page, which was unpleasantly slow for many people. Most household budgets were strained by the depression and the war, so families had to choose between newspaper radio and television. Which would you choose?
In the video below, Hal Wallace from the National Museum of American History gives a brief history of radio logs and shows an RCA unit from 1938.
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