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Science: The Flying Words

3 minute read

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.

Sarnoff did not say very much about just how long it takes to prepare the film for Ultrafax to transmit. It must have been a weary business to photograph Gone With the Wind, page by page.* Present methods of putting printed matter on film (and RCA mentioned no improvement) are still slow, compared with the speed Ultrafax can boast in transmission.

Ultrafax will probably send few novels. But, said Sarnoff, it can duplicate movie films (such as newsreels) almost instantaneously at any distance. It can send whole newspapers. Perhaps it heralds the day when the newspaper reader, on his way to breakfast, will stop off in the living room to watch the “printing” of his morning paper.

*Ultrafax is no table-top trinket. In the cut of the receiving apparatus, a “flying spot” of light is in the cylinder at the upper right. The film runs through the square camera box below it. The rest of the big cabinet is full of electron tubes and “monitoring” equipment. The pretty girl, the clock and the book are decorations.

*And the message, though lengthier, was not on the same plane as the first telegraphed message—Samuel Morse’s “What hath God Wrought!”

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