News breaks of Seattle's youth's "Rayfoto" invention, which is said to broadcast "radio pictures," on June 3, 1928.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 2/11/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 8932

On June 3, 1928, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that a local kid, Austin G. Cooley (1900-1993), has invented a device -- "attachable to any radio set" and "easily assembled" from a kit -- that can broadcast picture images of "considerable detail and contrast" to a receiver set, which the newspaper suggests will soon become an everyday household item.

Radio Pictures for All! 

Cooley -- the son of George W. Cooley, who operated an electrical shop (90 Columbia Street) -- conducted numerous experiments for many months before heading off to studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After dropping out of MIT he continued working in New York City where he perfected his invention. Using Cooley's Rayfoto system, Newark, New Jersey's radio station WOR began sending out "radio pictures" signals during their evening broadcasts in the fall of 1927 -- and then the Radiovision Corporation was formed in order to market a $150 three-tube model, in kit form. Their August 1928 booklet -- How to Receive Radio Pictures at Home – stated:

"No greater thrill awaits the radio experimenter than receiving his first picture through the ether...Not many months will pass before picture broadcasts will be a part of every radio broadcast."  

TV or Not TV?

The "Rayfoto" invention -- which at first may seem to have been an early precursor to the television -- was touted as utilizing "the corona discharge method" of exposing a photograph. This breakthrough "makes unnecessary such delicate and expensive devices as electrically operated shutters, multistage amplifiers, lens systems and moving mirrors, which have, so far, made a low-priced picture recorder out of the question" (Seattle P-I).

The Radiovision company noted that the thing was "the first authentic radio picture apparatus" -- and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, impressed by the technological advances it represented -- expressed hometown hopes that "Radio pictures will probably be a reality and quite common before many months, and a Seattle boy, Austin G. Cooley ... will be acclaimed throughout the world."  

Just the Fax ...

Unfortunately for Cooley, his pioneering "attempt at mass entertainment" via a mechanical medium "proved ineffective by 1929/1931 against the advances of television" (thesciencebookstore.com). Indeed, far from creating a moving image (like movies or, eventually, television), Cooley's Rayfoto machine offered something akin to a facsimile (or "Fax") machine.

Instead of providing for the broadcast of a continuous image in motion, it activated a spinning cylinder covered with sensitized paper that registered the signal in graphic form. Within a couple years Rayfoto's promise had been eclipsed by other advancing telecommunications technologies, in part because it proved to be "unsuitable for widespread home use because the receiver relied on photographic paper that had to be chemically developed" (Mannes).  However, rather than presaging the advent of television, Cooley's Rayfoto invention merely helped advance ongoing efforts which ultimately took the form of the modern-day Fax machine, and even the pre-magnetic recording tape era's lacquer "instant disc" recording devices of the 1930s (Biel).


Sources: "Radio Photos Soon Will Be Fact In Home," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, June 3, 1928, p. 8; How to Receive Radio Pictures at Home (New York: Radiovision Corp. August, 1928)  booklet accessed via thesciencebookstore.com website on February 1, 2009 (http:// thesciencebookstore.com/Cat05.htm); George Mannes, "Delivering the FAX: Fifty Years Ago Newspapers Thought They Had Found a New Method for Competing with Radio -- Via Fax," Invention and Technology Magazine, Vol. 14 No. 4 (Spring 1999), via americanheritage.com website accessed on January 30, 2009 (http:// americanheritage.com/articles/magazine/it/1999/4/1999_4_40_print.shtml); Michael Biel, "Broadcasting History," January 19, 2003 email to old.time.radio@oldradio.net website accessed on January 30, 2009 (http://jeff560.tripod.com/am4.html).

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