Ultrafax: A Forgotten Future

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At a reception for the coming renovation of Princeton's Firestone Library, my friend the reference librarian Mary George (author of The Elements of Library Research) called my attention to the published proceedings of the building's dedication over 60 years ago, and the Librarian of Congress Luther H. Evans's* warm reference to something called the Ultrafax.

Time magazine reported the Ultrafax's debut:

Words never moved faster than they did last week in Washington. A "distinguished audience" in the Library of Congress hardly had time to gasp before the 457,000 words (1,047 pages) of Gone With the Wind were snatched out of the air from across the city by a gadget called "Ultrafax"* and reproduced on a moving photographic film. The transmission took two minutes and 21 seconds. Impresario of the event was David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America. Not a man to be caught in understatement, Sarnoff compared the importance of Ultrafax to that of splitting the atom.

Ultrafax, by RCA out of Eastman Kodak Co., is a hybrid variety of facsimile transmission. It combines features of both television and photography. The material to be sent (text, writing, pictures, diagrams) must first be photographed on a strip of movie film. Using a kind of modified television technique, the film is "scanned" by a "flying spot" of light. At the receiving station another flying spot reproduces the material on another strip of film. When Ultrafax is really rolling, said Sarnoff, it can transmit 1,000,000 words a minute.

Eastman's contribution is an ultrafast method of developing Ultrafax film. After exposure to the blizzard of words, the film at the receiving end is passed through heated chemicals and developed and fixed in 15 seconds. Compressed air dries it in 25 seconds more.

If that's hard to visualize, this Popular Science article makes the system's physical scale and chemical requirements dauntingly clear. It's easy for us to smile at this unwieldy array of big electronic iron, but most great things come from unrealistic and impractical beginnings. Time announced the Xerox process in the same issue yet it had to overcome enormous obstacles before it became a hit 12 years later, as I wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year. And the fax itself goes back to the 19th century; its inventor, according to Henry Petroski in American Scientist, also introduced the inked typewriter ribbon. The fax is hardly a failed technology, as Petroski and others have noted; it's still built into millions of new multifunction devices and can do things that unencrypted e-mail can't, especially sending confidential account numbers. So apparent dead ends can be ultimately influential, even if their original forms are quietly dropped, as the Ultrafax was only three years after the announcement.

(The standard scholarly account is now this paper by Jennifer S. Light.)

UPDATE: Mary George has called my attention to the fact that the "library director" I mentioned above was not Julian Boyd, who was the head of the Princeton University Library at the time, but that it was Luther H. Evans, a Librarian of Congress, who turns out to be a remarkable person in his own right -- a Texas-born Princeton tenure reject who made a brilliant career in New Deal cultural affairs. Even Conservapedia has to acknowledge his contributions:

The Historical Records Survey, directed by Luther H. Evans, employed 3400 unemployed librarians, archivists, teachers and others, who located and inventoried the public records of every state, such as county records on births, marriages, and deaths, church and cemetery records, newspapers, schools, and memorabilia. It also created an index to the federal census of 1900, which was used to authenticate the ages of people who had no birth certificate but were eligible for old age assistance.

So it's no wonder Evans embraced the proto-Web potential of the Ultrafax for assembling and diffusing knowledge. And you can just imagine his former Princeton senior colleagues squirming. For readers curious about the academic and information controversies of the postwar years, the full text is here.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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