The 1926 Modem on North Huron Street

February 5, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

In the fall of 1925, Ypsilantians, and the nation, were transfixed by the romance of a onetime Lower East Side immigrant kid and a telegraph magnate’s daughter. Her wealthy father, Clarence, the son of Comstock Lode multimillionaire John Mackay, strongly disapproved of his Catholic daughter Ellin’s interest in a Jewish man with what he viewed as a disreputable occupation. Clarence refused to give Ellin his permission to marry. The couple waited in dismay for Clarence to change his mind.

Daily Ypsilantian-Press editor George Handy waited as well for the next tidbit of news—his readers loved the story.

The 1926 photo telegraphed from New York to Ypsilanti.

The 1926 photo telegraphed from New York to Ypsilanti.

When in January of 1926 that news came from New York, it was a bombshell. Ellin Mackay had eloped with and married Irving Berlin.

Handy needed a wedding photograph from New York—and fast—this story was too big to wait for the mail. He called New York.

Half an hour later he had a photograph, thanks to the only modem in Ypsilanti in 1926

That modem, half the size of a refrigerator, stood in the Press’s building at 101-105 North Huron. Called a “telephotography” machine, it could receive photographs from telegraph wires.

Telegraphy had a long history in Ypsilanti. The first telegraphic message sent in Michigan traveled from the Detroit telegraph office at Jefferson and Cass Avenues in Detroit to Ypsilanti’s railroad depot on November 29, 1847, through lines strung along the Michigan Central railroad tracks.

The first message sent by the “lightning slingers” (telegraph operators, especially railroad telegraphers) was not without a sense of playful glee.

Detroit sent first. “Detroit presents her compliments to her sister, Ypsilanti, who never promises more than she is willing and able to perform. Our connection by lightning is now complete, and the first flash in Michigan conveying intelligent messages has passed between us; may our ‘current’ never be broken, our ‘batteries’ always in order, and our ‘registers” ready at all times to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Ypsilanti replied, “Ypsilanti [-.– .–. … .. .-.. .- -. – ..] reciprocates the kind wishes of our lovely sister, Detroit, and as we are now not only on speaking terms, but within speaking distance, she hopes that our intercourse by lightning may be pleasant and profitable to both. So mote it [so be it].”

Continuing from the telegraph station in Ypsilanti, this “Erie and Michigan” line reached Chicago in the winter of 1848. But it wouldn’t be until many years later that photographs began flying along the wires.

In the 1920s, “Telephotography” was not new. As early as 1895, the San Francisco Call newspaper received a simple line drawing, sent by telegraph, of a Los Angeles parade. The message consisted of an alphanumeric code indicating the coordinates of the drawing’s line segments (not unlike the game “Battleship.”) The telegrapher also cabled a text description of the parade. An artist at the Call used the description to sketch details onto the line drawing, creating a detailed picture. The next morning, the paper printed a timely image of the Los Angeles event.

Telephotography made newspapers more seem up-to-the-minute. The technology was also used in law enforcement. Criminals’ pictures could be circulated in minutes, before the lawbreakers traveled too far. Their fingerprints could also be sent by wire. In 1922, the New York Times called telephotography “That Nemesis of Malefactors.” The speed of information transmission was beginning its long, dramatic, and world-changing acceleration.

The modem at the Ypsi Press consisted of a cylindrical metal drum and a tiny pinpoint flashlight, within its cabinet. It was hooked up to a telegraph wire. So was another similar machine, a transmitter, in New York.

In New York, a worker wrapped a photograph around the transmitter cylinder. When the machine was turned on, a tiny beam of light shone on the photo as the cylinder rotated about 100 times per minute, slowly advancing along a threaded axis. The transmitter scanned the photo in one-hundredth-inch sections at 100 lines to the inch; each square inch had 10,000 bits of information.

As the beam of slight scanned a slow spiral down the moving cylinder, a receptor caught the reflection of either dark or light areas of the photo. A photosensitive component translated the “dark” and “light” reflections into differing pulses of electricity. This coded electrical signal was telegraphed to Ypsilanti. The New York transmitter could send, and the Ypsi receiver could receive, 1,800 bits of information per second. A 5 x 7 photo could be sent and received in about 7 minutes.

In Ypsilanti, the receiver machine, whose rotation was adjusted to exactly match that of the New York machine, decoded the electrical signal back into information indicating light and dark areas. The receiver shone light of corresponding strength onto a fresh piece of photographic film attached to the cylinder.

In this way, a photo negative was produced, which was developed and used in the Ypsi paper. The resulting photo had a more limited tonal range than the original. Also, someone had blocked out most of the background in white to highlight the couple. Nevertheless, the photo contained an astounding amount of data.

1,800 bits per second is faster than the first commercial modem, AT&T’s 1962 Bell 103, which transmitted at 300 bits per second (bps). At this time, 300 bits per second equaled 300 baud, the unit of modem speed. Later, computer scientists figured out how to pack more bits into each baud, and bps became a more descriptive term for modem speed.

As much as we associate modems with the term “baud,” the term actually comes from telegraphy. Named to honor the French inventor who created the first teleprinter, J. M. E. Baudot, one “baud” is a unit of telegraph speed consisting of one Morse code dot sent per second.

Since that day when the Press received its New York photo, time moved on. The telephotography machine became an obsolete clunker. Irving Berlin’s father-in-law eventually forgave him and accepted their marriage—a wise move, since Irving would stay married to Ellin for 62 years, until her death in 1988.

Berlin died the following year, shortly before the popularization of dial-up modems, like the one that had transmitted his happy wedding picture all those years ago.

Thanks to Isaac Eiland-Hall for research assistance.

Laura Bien is an Ypsilanti history writer. You can reach her at ypsidixit@gmail.com.

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