This year, the Associated Press (AP) is celebrating its 175th anniversary. To mark the occasion, it has a special anniversary website where it has published a series of blogs. The eight-part series looks back at AP’s storied past and the technology that has driven the AP for the last 175 years.
In the seventh blog post, which covers the period of 1976-2000, there was significant innovation in news and photo delivery. AP writes, ‘Innovation in news and photo delivery were part of AP’s playbook and AP met those challenges time and again, most notably with the introduction of Photostream and the electronic darkroom, the development of the NC2000 digital camera and the creation of AP’s digital photo archive.’
Another technological innovation was the AP Portable Picture Transmitter in 1981. The device is a portable machine that allows the transmission of black and white and color photographs using telephone lines, like a fax machine for photos. The device includes a photo drum that would rotate an image, or other printed materials, for scanning and transmission. In the case of a color photo, it is scanned three times with different filters for cyan, magenta and yellow color data.
|A brochure showing off the AP Portable Picture Transmitter in 1981. Credit: AP Photo/Corporate Archives|
The AP Portable Picture Transmitter has an 8-bit microprocessor that controlled the device’s timing, motor, video and oscillating functions. It can operate in AM and FM modes at 60, 120 or U.S. laserphoto standard, and it is fully CCITT compatible. The computer-controlled automatic gain control first scans an image to detect the highest level of white, and then sets the white output signal accordingly. It may not look like much in 2021, but it was a revolutionary product.
The AP switched to a different device for photo transmission, the AP Leafax 35, in the late 1980s. The proprietary device can transmit color and black and white images, like the AP Portable Picture Transmitter, but it can also scan negatives.
In a 2015 interview with PetaPixel, sports photographer Brad Mangin talked about using the Leafax 35. Speaking about the summer of 1990 when he was hired to be the staff photographer for The National Sports Daily, Mangin said, ‘Before I knew it I was covering sporting events all over the place and sending pictures back to our picture desk in New York over analog phone lines with an AP Leafax transmitter that took 30 minutes to send one color picture — and that was state of the art at the time!’ Considering how quickly photographers can transmit photos now, it’s hard to imagine sending a single photo every 30 minutes. Then again, not long before the AP Portable Picture Transmitter and AP Leafax, it was probably difficult to imagine transmitting photos at all.
Technology has come a long way. Compared to the history of journalism at large, digital photography is still quite young. In 1994, AP collaborated with Kodak to develop the NC-2000 digital camera. It is the first digital camera used by AP photographers. At the time, it cost $14,500, which is nearly $27,000 when adjusted for inflation, and held only 75 images on a removable storage drive. The NC-2000 was based on a Nikon N90 (F90) body. It came in color, black and white and infrared models and boasted a resolution of only 1268 x 1012. The original model had a 5-shot buffer depth.
|In 1994, Kodak and the AP worked together on the first digital camera used by AP photographers, the Kodak NC-2000. The camera, built upon a Nikon film SLR, cost $14,500 (nearly $30,000 in today’s dollar). Credit: AP Photo.|
News delivery itself has come a long way from the days of telegraphs and albumen photo prints. Modernity has long been a moving target. We may take front-page photos for granted now, but wirephoto didn’t really come into its own until World War II. The AP started using computers in the 1970s, long before ‘digital’ made its way into the AP Stylebook in 1984.
We have everything in the palm of our hand and can view photos and videos captured around the world almost instantly. It’s worthwhile to look back every now and then if only to marvel at the progress. Long gone are the days of scanning a color photo three times with different filters on the AP Portable Picture Transmitter. What seems ancient now was at one time cutting edge. It makes one wonder how technology today will be viewed in 50 years.