In 2015, I can transmit photos to my wire service from the field using my phone, seconds after the images were shot. Back in the 80s however, it took a case of equipment weighing upwards of 80 pounds to get that job done. As the poet wrote: times they are a-changing.
I spent several years during and immediately following college shooting professional and collegiate sports for a variety of wire services. The process was pretty straightforward: shoot images, mark in-camera the shots you thought were good, run inside during halftime (or sooner if you had a really great image), dump your photos, apply basic cropping, caption, then upload via FTP.
Pretty easy right? There were even times when I would use Wi-Fi to tether to my phone and caption and transmit an image right from the sideline so I didn't miss any action. I've always known in the back of my mind that it wasn't always this easy. Logically, you know that photographers used to have to shoot film, and then have couriers carry the film back to the office to develop, or develop themselves when they got back. But I never stopped to think about what those early days of file transmission were like. Turns out they were, well, slow.
Chris Wilkins of the The Dallas Morning News described what it was like in this article from 2012.
...Transmission times were painfully long using an analog drum transmitter, such as UPI’s 16-S transmitter. The photo spun on a drum while a laser moved slowly across the print producing an audible analog signal consisting of beeps.
If you were lucky enough to get a perfect telephone line for sending the picture, one color photo took a minimum of 26 minutes to transmit. Sending internationally took twice as long, sometimes up to an hour per photo.
Read that again. A minimum of 26 minutes for a single color image, double that if sending to an international client. And that was just transmitting, that doesn't even take into account the time it took to develop the image in the first place.
Check out this video of the UPI-16-S in action:
Wilkins goes on to describe how, in the late 80s, Hasselblad changed everything.
In 1988, AFP and camera maker Hasselblad introduced the Dixel, the first digital 35mm transmitter used by the wire services. First used at the Calgary Winter Olympic Games, the Dixel gave AFP a serious competitive advantage over the other wire services.
Transmitting a color photo took around two or three minutes, and the quality and sharpness was unprecedented. AFP staff photographers were relieved and looked forward to leaving bulky printmaking equipment and analog transmitters behind.
Look at that thing; So svelte, so clean. That screen looks positively like a screen. That's a keyboard with keys to type things. Two to three minutes for a color image? Better final file quality? Not bad. There was only one problem.
The Dixel proved a travel nightmare. The fragile machine was fine in an office setting but was often damaged in transit, loosening internal computer boards and the optical scanning unit. The relatively small computer had to be shipped in a huge travel case, encased in a 12-inch thick foam lining.
AFP photographers became amateur computer technicians in the field, tearing the machines down and trying to coax them back into service. The Dixel became so undependable that we soon reverted to carrying the old printing equipment as a backup just in case it didn’t work. Add another huge case to the load.
Sounds kind of like people trying to use PCs in the field instead of Macs (I kid, I kid!). But seriously, we've come a long way since then. In the next 10 years we would begin to see the advent of the digital camera as a serious tool for working professionals and the development of specialized software that allows working photographers to capture, edit, caption, and transmit hundreds of images in a matter of minutes. So the next time you get frustrated at your card reader taking forever to download, or curse your ISP for your slow upload speeds, stop and imagine sitting down at one of these babies and staring at that tiny screen, after spending an hour trying to fix the damn thing. Viva la technologie!