Contrary to popular belief, computers and phone lines didn’t deliver the first electronic newspapers. Specialized radios accomplished this technological feat several decades before computing equipment began to enter American homes. They used wireless fax broadcasts to print news articles and photos on heat-sensitive paper.
People started to embrace this technology during the late 1930s. Radio stations transmitted newspapers after midnight; readers with special printer-equipped radios could receive them within a range of about 50 miles. Unfortunately, their primitive printing equipment took up to three hours to generate each newspaper!
Electronics companies like RCA and Crosley manufactured these early wireless fax machines. They couldn’t match the image quality of traditional newspapers. Nonetheless, their equipment excelled at producing clear text and simple artwork. Articles were usually printed in a two-column format.
Although this technology achieved modest commercial success and drew attention at the World’s Fair, it didn’t attain widespread popularity. Few Americans could afford to buy the equipment, and radio interference had a major impact on wireless fax reception. Most stations stopped broadcasting news data in 1940.
Subsequent inventions prevented a revival of radio newspapers. Television offered a more appealing way to see the latest news, and computers eventually introduced an interactive alternative. Nevertheless, some mariners still use radio-based fax systems to view weather maps during ocean voyages.