Sir W. Mitchell Thompson
David Horvitz: This is a photoradiogram of Sir W. Mitchell-Thomson by the Radio Corporation of America. It was made in 1926, when photographs were first being transmitted through radio waves and telegraph and telephone wires, which, up until that point, only transmitted language. Barriers between spaces seemed to become obsolete as communications began to travel from one place to another almost instantaneously. With photoradiograms, the image of an event could travel as well.
How does this work? The machine scans the image line by line and encodes it into an electrical signal—like Morse code—then sends it by radio wave to another machine, which reconstructs and prints the image. (This image was scanned in London; Mitchell-Thomson was the postmaster general of the United Kingdom at the time.) The result is a kind of halftone picture. The photoradiogram machine was a precursor of the fax machine and of what would become the Internet.
William Smith: It’s easy to imagine Morse code operating in a visual or mimetic rather than symbolic or coded way here, given that the image is actually composed of discrete marks that vary in density to convey areas of light and dark. At the time, people might have compared the photoradiogram to a coarse engraving; to us it looks pixelated. Was the technology developed in a commercial context or a military or government context?
DH: The government consolidated this technology during the First World War, when it took over the radio industry and put a moratorium on patents. Afterward, there was an efflorescence of inventions. RCA was one of the main companies using this kind of technology for consumer applications after the war. Richard Ranger, who worked for RCA, designed the photoradiogram in 1924. The photoradiogram and similar technologies were used by wire services and to send weather information to ships at sea. But the first image transmitted across the Atlantic was of President Calvin Coolidge, sent from New York to London.
Brian Droitcour: When was the first cat picture sent by radio?
DH: I don’t know, but we could find out.
WS: This photoradiogram is a picture of Mitchell-Thomson, but it might as well depict a LOLcat. The real subject is the image’s own transmission and the technology underlying it. It is a proof of concept. The technology came first; the production of images that needed to be transmitted instantaneously followed.
You say that this image renders barriers between different spaces obsolete through the speed of its transmission. Yet the low resolution of the picture may also represent vast distances as well. The pixelated quality of the image points to an important delay inherent in its production. So while we may view this as a precursor to the Internet, it also makes us aware of the physical dimension of image transmission even at a moment when real-time viewing appears seamless.