The Wireless Newspapers of the 1930s

Laying out the sports section of the New York Times by hand in 1942. (Library of Congress)

It is 1937, and newspapers across the United States are worried. New technology is threatening their traditional subscription-based service with a free, ad-supported alternative. And unlike daily newspapers, this new medium lets people access the news anytime and anywhere.

Readers are starting to ask: why should I pay money for a physical newspaper when I can get an unlimited stream of news in real time for free?

It’s a familiar story in 2017, but 80 years ago it was radio, not the internet, that was threatening the print news industry.

To compete, some newspapers began to experiment with ways to adapt their businesses to the radio age. The result was a fascinating piece of technology: radio facsimile.

Each radio facsimile device could receive and print out newspapers, photographs, and other printed content transmitted via radio. Receivers cost between $125 and $260, and were housed in bulky wooden boxes.

This new technology generated tremendous hype, and major companies like RCA were quick to develop and market receivers for personal use.

Newspapers across the country saw radio facsimile as a way to keep their edge in the emerging struggle between print and radio news. Stations dedicated to broadcasting printed newspapers in radio facsimile format sprang up across the country.

Unfortunately, despite all the public interest and hype, few people were actually ready to commit to the relatively expensive new technology — especially during the austere Depression years.

The high cost was compounded by the fact that the machines were mechanically troublesome and amazingly slow, with a print speed of only three pages per hour.

These issues prevented radio facsimiles from achieving the widespread adoption that newspaper companies had hoped for.

Inner workings (left) and diagram (right) of Finch’s radio facsimile device. (
Left: Radio-Craft Magazine’s 1934 cover. Right: A radio facsimile receiver in operation.
Left: Children read newspaper comics printed on their radio facsimile receiver. Right: A chair-side radio facsimile receiver. (Gizmodo)
RCA radio facsimile device prints out the days news. (Wide World Photo, 1938)
Radio facsimile office of The Miami Herald, 1948. (Gizmodo)

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