(Left to right) John G. Leitch of the Federal Radio Commission
and George W. Humpfer, engineer for Radio Station WFI
August 14, 1928

The first attempt to transmit a picture from an airplane to a radio broadcasting station anywhere in the world was made in Philadelphia on Tuesday, August 14, 1928. It took place at the Philadelphia Airport (now called Philadelphia International Airport) which in 1928 was located on Island Road just below Tinicum Avenue in Southwest Philly.

The picture was that of Charles Lindbergh. The radio outlet was WFI (now WFIL) which was owned by the Strawbridge & Clothier Department Store, and it was the destination or "reception" point. While people at the radio could see the features of Lindbergh from time to time, a defective generator on the aircraft prevented a complete picture at the "receiving" end.

There were hundreds of fans of radio at the airport during the test. WFI Engineer George W. Humpfer and John G. Leitch of the Federal Radio Commission (later renamed the Federal Communications Commission) were in the airplane conducting the experiment. Robert P. Hewitt, who was the manager of the airport, piloted the craft. Leitch later became Vice-President of Engineering for WCAU Radio and TV.

The plane was a Fairchild cabin monoplane and was similar to what Richard Byrd used in Antarctica. It taxied off the runway at 6:10 pm and climbed to about one mile. The aircraft returned to the airport 35 minutes later at 6:45 pm. In the cabin was a special short wave transmitter, especially constructed for this purpose. It had a range of several hundred miles and a maximum output of 75 kilowatts. Instead of using an actual photo of Lindbergh, the transmission was made using a 78-rpm phonograph record which had the photo on the label. A specially designed amplifier was used to send the picture into a radio transmitter. Then it was sent and received by radio station WFI and other points.

At the station, the picture was received by what was called a ""ray-foto," which was described as "a circuit containing three radio tubes, which transform incoming signals into a photographic negative. This machine actually transforms incoming sounds on a picture signal into light. Next to the machine is a revolving cylinder on a phonograph turntable. The sound entering the picture receiver controlled the speed of the revolving cylinder and impresses, by a series of dots, and the picture negative was placed on sensitized paper revolving on the cylinder. The paper, four by five inches, is then placed in a developer and fixed the same as other photographs." It took about five minutes to complete a picture.

The person who handled the receiving end of this experiment was W. P. Asten, Receiving Engineer of the Radiovision Corporation of New York. He said that day: We only received fitting impressions of the picture of Colonel Lindbergh because the electric generator of the plane which furnishes the voltage for the transmitter became loose. This caused the picture to come in flashes and disappear again. The aerial trip on account of this had to be cut short, but it will be tried again. Whether it was, we have not been able to find out.

While the airplane was making its trip, phonograph records of "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America" were played in the cabin. The music was included as part of the broadcast but its reception was also hampered by the generator problem. This experiment was co-sponsored by the Ludington Philadelphia Flying Service (founded in 1922) and the Radiovision Corporation of New York. WFI cooperated by making its facilities available for the adventure.

The first transmission of photos by radio was made on March 3, 1923 (some five years before). Pictures at that time were sent from the U.S. Naval radio station in Washington to a receiving station in Philadelphia which was inside the Evening Bulletin newspaper. That test was conducted by the North American Newspaper Alliance with scientists and newspaper publishers in attendance. Photos that were sent and received were that of former President (who died in office) Warren Harding, the president that succeeded him Calvin Coolidge and Governor (June 14,1923) of Pennsylvania Gifford Pinchot. The transmission distance was about 125 miles.

Charles Francis Jenkins of Washington, DC, invented the special equipment used in both experiments. Jenkins, who held over 400 patents, was also the inventor of the very first motion picture machine. Because of that invention, Philadelphia's Franklin Institute conferred upon Jenkins, "the Elliott Crosson" medal in 1898. Experiments like this led the way into the development of facsimile broadcasting and television. Jenkins ran the first television station in the United States, W3XK which started broadcasting on July 2, 1928. In 1931, the Jenkins Television Corporation was purchased by Lee DeForest. The 1923 transmission to Philadelphia was the city's first experiment with technology that would lead to television.

Jill A. Humpfer Tofferi, a visitor to our website e-mailed:

My name is Jill A. Humpfer Tofferi. My grandfather whom I never knew, is George W. Humpfer. My father (George W. Humpfer, Jr.) always spoke of this photo radio transmission with such emotion and pride. ...My father was an only child, I never knew either of his parents. The two things that I know are that my grandfather was the Electrical Engineer for Strawbridge & Clothier (they owned WFI Radio) in Philadelphia for many, many years. ...I would think that this was an important event. ...The only other thing I know is that this story... hung in a frame proudly in my Dad's office. My sister and I each at sometime used it for show and tell. I do not know what happened to it. I know the he (my grandfather) lived in Philadelphia. My father was also raised there. I believe on Robinson Street (in West Philadelphia).

By the way, Robert Hewitt, who piloted the plane turned out to be a hero in later life. In 1938, he was piloting an airliner from New York City to Miami. However, the heating system failed and the cabin temperature dropped to 30 degrees below zero. Hewitt and the co-pilot wrapped the two dozen passengers in blankets but there were none for the crew. Robert landed the airplane safely in Washington. He passed out upon stepping onto the runway. His left foot had froze. Because of this, he developed gangrene and in December of 1949, had to have the leg amputated here in Philadelphia at the U.S. Naval Hospital. He died four years later in 1953.

From the official archives of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
Text compiled and researched by Broadcast Pioneers member Gerry Wilkinson
© 2009, Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia
All Rights Reserved

The e-mail address of the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia is pioneers@broadcastpioneers.com