April 17, 2012
The introduction of broadcast radio caused some in the newspaper industry to fear that newspapers would soon become a thing of the past. After all, who would read the news when you could just turn on the radio for real-time updates?
Newspapers had even more to fear in 1938 when radio thought it might compete with them in the deadtree business as well.
The May, 1938 issue of Hugo Gernsback‘s Short Wave and Television magazine included an article titled “Radio to Print News Right In Your Home.” The article described a method of delivering newspapers that was being tested and (provided it didn’t interfere with regular radio broadcasts) would soon be used as a futuristic news-delivery method.
The magazine proudly included a previous prediction from a different Gernsback publication four years earlier, before the FCC had granted trials:
Hugo Gernsback, in the April 1934 issue of Radio-Craft forecast the advent of the “radio newspaper.” Here’s the front cover illustration of that magazine. Compare it with the pictures on the opposite page!
The article opens by explaining that this futuristic device is already in use:
As you read this article, radio facsimile signals are probably circulating all around you. At least 23 broadcast stations, some of them high power ones, and a number of short-wave stations are now transmitting experimental facsimile signals under a special license granted by the Federal Communications Commission.
This invention of a wireless fax, as it were, was credited to W.G. H. Finch and used radio spectrum that was otherwise unused during the late-night hours when most Americans were sleeping. The FCC granted a special license for these transmissions to occur between midnight and 6am, though it would seem that a noisy printing device in your house cranking away in the middle of the night might have been the fatal flaw in their system. It wasn’t exactly a fast delivery either, as the article notes that it takes “a few hours” for the machine to produce your wireless fax newspaper.
The article explained exactly how the process worked:
The photo or other piece of copy, such as news bulletins, is placed in the scanner at the transmitter. At the rate of 100 lines per inch picture to be transmitted is scanned, and the transmitter sends out periodic impulses which vary in strength with the degree of light or shade on the picture. When these signals are received, by wire or radio, they are passed into a recording stylus. This stylus moves back and forth over a piece of chemically dry processed paper (the Finch system) in a line, wide or narrow as the case may be, is traced on the paper. A facsimile such as that shown in one of the accompanying pictures is obtained, and it thus becomes an easy matter to reproduce printed matter, drawings and photos, etc.
The article mentions two parties that are experimenting with the technology (Mr. Finch and RCA) but goes on to explain that nothing about the system had been standardized yet.
Many different systems of transmitting and recording devices by facsimile have been tried. The one used by the Finch system employs a special chemically treated paper. When a current passes through the moving stylus needle, the reaction causes a black spot to appear on the paper, the size of the spot at a given point depending upon the strength of the received impulse. At the transmitter the light beam is focused on the picture to be sent and the reflected light falls on a photo-electric cell.
Whether Finch and RCA knew it or not, battles between formats would continue right on into the 21st century as the fight over newspaper paywalls, cord-cutters, and ebooks continues to dramatically shift our media landscape.
February 21, 2012
It’s quite easy for people to talk cynically of the various ways in which technology is supposedly undermining culture and society. (And those complaints are obviously nothing new.) In particular, people have — rightly or wrongly — been afraid of “information overload” for ages.
But I’m an Internet apologist. The ability of average people to obtain information instantaneously is just phenomenal. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
When I was a kid, growing up in the late 1980s and early 90s, I had no idea what the Internet was. But the futurism books I’d check out at the library would hint at the massive information infrastructure that was to come. One such book, World of Tomorrow: School, Work and Play by Neil Ardley had a two-page spread about the electronic library of the future. This 1981 book explained everything from what homework might be done in the future to how computer criminals might make off with all your data.
The picture above shows medical experts inputting data into a large centralized electronic library. The idea that an electronic library would be so organized in one physical space might be the most jarring aspect to these types of futures, which were imagined before our modern web. The 1993 AT&T concept video “Connections” talked about electronic education in a similar way, with students linking to an “education center” in Washington, D.C.
Text from the World of Tomorrow book appears below. It may seem so quaint to modern readers, but it’s fantastic to read about how “this service at your fingertips is like having a huge brand-new encyclopedia in your home at all times.”
Imagine you are living in the future, and are doing a project on Halley’s comet. It’s quite some time since it last appeared in 1986, and you want to find out when it will again be seen from Earth. You also want to know the results of a space mission to the comet, and find out what the comet is made of.
In the days when the comet last appeared, you would have to look up Halley’s comet in an encyclopedia or a book on astronomy. If you didn’t possess these books, you would have gone to the library to get the information. And to find out about the space mission, you might have had to get in touch with NASA. Now, finding out anything is much easier — thanks to the computer.
People still collect books as valuable antiques or for a hobby, but you get virtually all the information you need from the viewscreen of your home computer system. The computer is linked to a library — not a library of books but an electronic library where information on every subject is stored in computer memory banks. You might simply ask the computer to display you the range of information on Halley’s comet. It contacts the library, and up comes a list of articles to read and video programs. You select those you want at a level you understand — and sit back.
Having this service at your fingertips is like having a huge brand-new encyclopedia in your homes at all times. The computer can tell you anything you want to know, and the information is always the very latest available. There need be only one central library to which computers in homes, offices, schools and colleges are connected. At the library experts are constantly busy, feeding in the very latest information as they receive it. In theory one huge electronic library could serve the whole world!